This traditional Purim pastry is somewhat contentious.
Arguments often spring up over various desserts. Is the Twinkie or the Ho Ho better? Should Thanksgiving dinner include pumpkin pie or pecan? Pudding or Jell-O?
But none of these arguments are, when you get right down to it, particularly serious. Not so with the various discussions that can swirl around the topic of hamantash, a pastry which is traditionally eaten during the Jewish holiday of Purim.
Purim is a Jewish holiday that celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from destruction after a plot by Haman, the main antagonist in the Book of Esther. The holiday is, in many ways, dedicated to cursing the name of Haman, vigorously, out loud, and often with the assistance of noisemakers.
The observance of Purim involves, among other things, a large feast which is preceded by a fast. Hamantaschen are one of the traditional foods eaten during this feast. The name of the pastries varies, but translates to either "Haman's pockets" or "Haman's ears," depending on the language.
A gruesome back story for such an inoffensive dessert. Hamantaschen are basically a circle of pastry dough folded up into a triangle, with a dab of filling inside. The most traditional filling is a poppy seed paste, but other common fillings include prunes, jam, chocolate, cream cheese, and more.
Imagine a cherry Danish, but smaller, and less sticky, and you're getting close. It must be said that the appeal of the hamantash is a subtle one. This is a dessert which is best made at home, or purchased from a trusty bakery. You can buy mass-market hamantaschen, but they are liable to be dry, dusty and bland. It makes me thirsty just thinking about it.
The holiday of Purim is also dedicated to sending gifts of food to friends and donating charity to the poor. But the roots of the holiday are undeniably violent, which makes it a somewhat contentious issue in many circles. A Slate article a few years back said that Purim "carries a veneer of boisterous and innocent fun overlaid on some gruesome history."
At the very least, that gruesome history should not involve your cookies. If you want to try your hand at making fresh hamantaschen, this recipe is probably a great place to start. It uses a buttery, shortbread-like cookie dough as its base, and while it seems somewhat more labor-intensive than most cookie recipes (do you really want to grind your own poppy seeds?) it could be a great family activity. (And a great opportunity to tackle some of Purim's tougher questions while you're all engaged in a nice bit of baking.)