Purim [POOR-im] is the most joyous day in the happiest month on the Jewish calendar. Falling on the 14th day of Adar [ah-DAHR], the holiday begins at sundown tonight.
In brief, Purim commemorates Queen Esther saving the Jews from extermination. Her cousin, Mordechai, refused one day to bow to the king's vizier, Haman, which enraged Haman. He sought King Ahasuerus' permission to massacre the Jews, which Ahasuerus granted without realizing that this would also include his wife, Esther, who had never revealed herself as a Jew. Esther fasted for three days as she debated whether to approach the king and risk her own life. Needless to say, her courage won the day: Esther spoke to the king, revealing Haman's plot, and Ahasuerus had Haman executed. As the saying goes, they tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat!
Purim celebrations are silly and giddy and lots of fun. It's customary to dress up in costumes, since Esther hid her identity; so I'll be masquerading as a fairy godmother, wearing a slightly cheesy thrift store prom dress accessorized with a pink tiara, a be-ribboned wand, and gold-trimmed pink wings. (It's very "me," for those who don't know of my affinity for Disney princesses, sparkles, glitter, and whimsy!)
Because there are always traditional and ritual foods at Jewish holidays, I'll also be eating lots of triangular cookies called hamantaschen [HAH-men-TAHSH-en], which are shaped to resemble either the ears or the hat of the villainous Haman. (For my hamantaschen recipe, see last year's Purim post.) Kids particularly love this holiday because it's expected that the name of Haman should be drowned out with noise. How great to spin groggers, yell, stomp, and generally be granted permission to be a bit rowdy!
Other Purim customs are required by Jewish law: hearing the Book of Esther read aloud, as well as giving gifts of food to friends and donating to charity. According to Esther 9:22, Jews are commanded "to observe ... days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor."
Mishloach manot [mish-loh-AHCK mah-NOTE] are small goodie bags that are thus given to loved ones; they are supposed to contain two portions of foods that are ready to eat - one is sweet while the other is savory. The sweet variety is usually hamantaschen, and I offer pretzels to go with them. And since I like to feed people, I always add some small candies and a second type of cookie as well.
This year, I had lots of poppy seed filling left over after baking my hamantaschen; this is the most traditional flavor, as it honors the diet of nuts and seeds that Esther is said to have eaten in King Ahasuerus' palace where she had no access to kosher food. So I used some for the shortbread-based cookies offered below, since it's a lovely complement to the almond-flavored topping.
Hag Purim Sameach! [HAHg pooh-REEM sah-MAY-ahck]
Poppy Seed Shortbread Cookies
(adapted from the recipe for Macaroon Bar Cookies in Gloria Kaufer Greene's The Jewish Holiday Cookbook)
1/4 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
3/4 cup unbleached flour
Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease an 8"x8" baking pan.
In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Stir in the egg and extract; stir in the flour. With damp hands, press the dough into the prepared pan; bake for 15 minutes until set.
1/3 cup poppy seed filling
2 tablespoons water
Stir filling ingredients together; carefully spread over the prepared shortbread base.
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon unbleached flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of kosher salt
1/3 cup ground almonds
Combine all ingredients and whisk until well beaten. Carefully spread over the poppy seed filling, swirling the topping and the filling together a bit. Bake for 15 minutes until the topping is golden. Let cool completely.
Trim 1/4" edges from all sides. Cut into 4 rows and 4 columns, to make 16 squares. Cut each square in half diagonally to form 32 triangles.
Makes 32 cookies.
You might remember that I've prepared several lovely recipes from the Chaldean cookbook Ma Baseema: Cardamom-Scented Shortbread Cookies, Iraqi Salad, and Spiced Beef Egg Rolls. My review of the book appears in this month's issue of the Washtenaw Jewish News, and can be found on page 29 ....