Hamantaschen, Purim’s best-known treat, are the M.I.A. of pastries—many controversies, some political and some trivial, swirl around them. I would prefer to sidestep most of these controversies. Let’s not talk about the unsavory, genocide-friendly implications of the Purim story. Let’s not argue about what exactly hamantaschen are supposed to symbolize, either. (The word means “Haman’s pockets,” a nod to the corrupt nature of the villain of the Book of Esther, but the triangular pastries are also said to resemble Haman’s hat, or, more abstractly, the three Israelite patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.) Let’s not even enter into the ongoing, decades-old Latke-Hamantash debate, except to say that if you’re an unthinking member of Team Latke, you clearly have never had a good hamantasch.
Instead, let’s talk about something we should all be able to agree on: what constitutes a good hamantasch. For one thing, it contains poppy seeds, not prunes, chocolate, jam, or any other number of inferior fillings. (Prunes, chocolate, and jam are great, but hamantaschen are neither the time nor the place for them.) Also, it’s a cookie, not a pyramid of crumbly pie crust.
This latter point shouldn’t be an area of contention, and yet it is. Few people still make hamantaschen dough the old-fashioned way, with yeast, because that approach is lose-lose: It requires extra time and effort to knead and raise the dough, and the results are dull compared to cookies. However, plenty of people make hamantaschen dough with cream cheese, which sounds great on paper but results in an arid cookie that breaks easily into shards. Others add orange juice to their dough, even though adding liquid to cookie dough is always a bad idea. (If you’re going to add orange juice to cookie dough, you may as well abort the hamantaschen and make orange cake instead.)
Enough of this funny business. For moist, buttery hamantaschen, you need a straightforward, rich, shortbread-like cookie dough. You can add orange zest for citrus flavor, but save the orange juice for your poppy-seed filling (and save the cream cheese for your poppy-seed bagel). To make the dough solid enough to roll out without sticking, but not so dense that the finished cookies are brittle, limit your all-purpose flour, and supplement with almond flour.
Almond flour makes an appearance in the poppy-seed filling, too, as it heightens the seeds’ nutty flavor and helps thicken the filling into a sweet, sticky, irresistible paste. Finding and preparing your poppy seeds for the filling are the hardest parts of making hamantaschen. If you want a reasonable quantity of the opium byproduct, you’ll have to order the seeds online or visit a specialty store that sells them in bulk. (Try your local Indian, Middle Eastern, or Eastern European market.) Otherwise, you’ll have to avail yourself of the poppy seeds packaged in petite, cylindrical jars found in the spice aisle at many supermarkets. (Keep in mind that a 2.5-ounce jar of seeds contains about ½ cup.)
When you’ve got them home, you’ll want to partially grind your poppy seeds to release their oils and thickening compounds. Before processing the poppy seeds, rid your coffee or spice grinder of lingering aromas by grinding up some uncooked rice and then wiping it out with a damp paper towel.
Once that’s out of the way, making amazing hamantaschen is simply a matter of simmering, stirring, rolling, and filling. Folding hamantaschen into triangles is a lot of fun, but be vigilant while shaping, because your triangles will melt into blobs if you overfill your cookies. A teaspoon of poppy-seed filling per cookie is enough—if each black dab of filling looks sparse and lonely sitting on its round of dough, it’s probably just the right amount.
This recipe makes a lot of cookies, on account of the indivisibility of the poppy-seed filling. (No recipe should ever call for half an egg.) If you’re skeptical of the ability of you and your loved ones to consume five dozen cookies before they go stale, well, then you’re probably wrong. But you can halve the dough and use the leftover filling as a spread on toast (or for my colleague Miriam Krule’s Purim scones). You can also freeze unused dough and filling for a few weeks or months before assembling and baking. There’s no rule saying you can only make hamantaschen on Purim.
Orange-Poppy Seed Hamantaschen
Yield: About 60 cookies
Time: About 3 hours, largely unattended
¾ cup poppy seeds
¾ cup whole milk
⅓ cup honey
¼ cup raisins
2¼ cups sugar
¾ cup almond flour
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons (4¼ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon orange juice
Grated zest of 2 medium oranges
2 teaspoons almond extract
4 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1. Put the poppy seeds in a clean coffee grinder, a spice grinder, or a small food processor and process until coarsely ground, about 20 seconds. Put the poppy seeds, milk, honey, raisins, ¼ cup sugar, ¼ cup almond flour, and 2 tablespoons butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Beat 1 egg in a medium bowl, then gradually add the hot poppy-seed mixture to the egg, whisking constantly. Stir in the orange juice. Cool at room temperature while you prepare the dough (or refrigerate in an airtight container for up to a few days before proceeding).
2. Beat the remaining 2 cups butter and 2 cups sugar with the paddle attachment of a stand mixer (or with a handheld electric mixer) until light and fluffy. Add 2 eggs, the orange zest, and the almond extract, and beat until thoroughly combined. Add the all-purpose flour, the salt, and the remaining ½ cup almond flour and stir gently to combine. Wrap the dough in foil or plastic wrap (or simply cover the bowl) and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 3 days.
3. Heat the oven to 350° and line one or two baking sheets with parchment paper. Quarter the dough and place one quarter on a lightly floured surface. With a rolling pin, roll out the dough until it’s approximately ¼ inch thick. Cut into rounds with a 3-inch cookie cutter or glass, and transfer to the baking sheet(s). Put about 1 teaspoon of the poppy-seed mixture in the center of each round, and pull three edges of the dough over the filling to form a triangle and to partially cover the filling. Pinch the corners of the triangle to seal.
4. Beat the remaining 1 egg with 1 tablespoon water; lightly brush the hamantaschen with the egg wash. Bake the hamantaschen until golden brown, 15 to 18 minutes, then transfer the cookies to wire racks or paper towels to cool. Repeat with the remaining dough, filling, and egg wash. Serve immediately, or store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a few days.