Monday, March 21, 2011

My NYC Hamantaschen Quest for Purim

I've learned a lot about Jewish holidays since moving to New York, but I first heard of Purim in Ohio.

That's also where, roughly four years ago, I first encountered hamantaschen. I've been craving the three-cornered jelly-filled treats ever since.

I had a weekend shift as a reporter at the Springfield News-Sun, and I was assigned to cover the Purim celebration at the local temple. I was immediately fascinated by the mix of costumes, games, food and religion -- it felt like my old elementary school's annual fall festival, with the Book of Esther thrown in.

I heard Esther's story in Springfield and later read it on my own. The biblical book itself is pretty short and reads much more like a fairy tale than many of the other books (I'm looking at you, Revelation). But, to make a short story even shorter, Esther and Mordechai thwart Haman's plans to kill the Jews.

At the Springfield celebration I had my first -- and up until this month, only -- hamantaschen. I'm normally not a fan of jelly on cookies, but for this I make an exception. The dough-to-jelly ratio was perfect, and the shape of the cookies added to the whimsy. Hamantaschen -- variously translated as Haman's hat, ears or pockets, I've heard -- are always triangular.

Purim this year began at sunset Saturday and continues through today. To mark the occasion, I was determined to sample some New York City hamantaschen.

Unfortunately, I determined this on Saturday -- the one day of the week many strict Jewish businesses are closed. But I would not be deterred. Introducing Russ & Daughters hamantaschen.

Russ & Daughters is much more famous for its fish and lox, but its desserts are nothing to sneeze at. In fact, Tablet Magazine named Russ & Daughters' hamantaschen tops in a taste test of bakeries in six cities in five states.

But when I got to Russ & Daughters on Saturday afternoon, the hamantaschen were all sold out. I combed a 10 block area on the Lower East Side without luck before making a last ditch effort at Whole Foods. None there either.

Finally I started calling bakeries in Bay Ridge. I found success on my second call. Bay Ridge Bakery, a mere two blocks from our apartment, had some left.

I rushed home from the Lower East Side and picked out a prune hamantaschen 15 minutes before the shop closed. (And a piece of chocolate-covered baklava because -- well, why not?)

The look was a bit off -- usually you can see much more of the jelly filling on top -- but I can't complain about the taste. The shortbread-like pastry had a slight lemony taste, and the prune jelly was so good I could have eaten it plain.

Final thoughts: we Catholics could learn a few things about desserts.

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