For most of my life, hamantashen occupied the same status as the kichel, that dry cookie from kiddushes past that looks like a dog biscuit and has no discernable taste. Growing up, every hamantash I ate tasted like cardboard. Moreover, there were so many better Jewish cookies to enjoy, such as the black and white.
After researching hamantashen recipes I learned why the traditional Purim cookies were so boring and bland: an entire generation of Jewish bakeries, home bakers and cookbook authors felt that they had to follow the rules.
Hamantashen recipes in cookbooks going back to the 1950s, and for the next 50 years, were largely the same: an oil or butter cookie dough, filled with prune, poppy or apricot. This was the case whether the recipes were found in traditionally published books or in those cherished sisterhood cookbooks we grew up with. There were few exceptions.
A 1958 cookbook by Jennie Grossinger, of the Catskills hotel fame (where my parents met), features recipes for hamantashen with apple butter and cherry pie filling in addition to the classic prune and poppy. These new fillings were an American twist on an Eastern European classic.
Californian chef Judy Zeidler, in her 1988 book The Gourmet Jewish Cook, had recipes for hamantashen filled with caramel pecan and apricot and coconut. Marcy Goldman’s Treasury of Jewish Baking included a chocolate hazelnut filling, which was pretty radical for 1998, but it didn’t really catch on. All of the most popular Jewish cookbooks published through the 1990s had prune and poppy fillings.
When I got married in 1992, my husband gifted to me his grandmother Celia’s recipe, which was simple and tasty, and I started to enjoy hamantashen. Nonetheless, I stuck to the traditional prune, poppy and apricot fillings for the next almost 20 years.
In my Holiday Kosher Baker cookbook, influenced by the macaroon craze in Paris circa 2011, I created colorful hamantashen doughs and creative fillings, mostly because the world had enough recipes with vanilla hamantashen dough and prune filling. I included pink raspberry and matcha green tea doughs and dough with tiny chocolate chunks. I bent the rules because it was time for the hamantashen to get more respect in the Jewish cookie world.
Although Jewish bakeries in the United States stick to classic fillings, bakeries in Israel went wild with hamantashen flavors back in the early 2000s.
In a 2006 Jerusalem Post article, Eva Ben-David lists the then “new” hamantashen flavors in Israeli bakeries including marzipan, halva, chocolate-rosemary and ricotta-poppy. According to Israeli chef Gil Hovav, the Israeli bakery chain Roladin, also famous for its creative sufganiyot offerings each Chanukah, first introduced alternative hamantashen to Israel.
A 2013 survey of hamantashen flavors around Israel uncovered pistachio-cherry, chocolate-chili, carrot-cinnamon, dried blueberry in almond cream, many places with spelt or whole-wheat dough and savory cookies filled with candied sweet potatoes and herbed potatoes.
Today I couldn’t even tell you how many different types of hamantashen you can find in Israeli bakeries. Our American bakeries are, however, lagging very far behind, which means that home bakers should up their game.
I credit Instagram and Facebook with giving us unique hamantashen, such as Kitchen Tested’s rainbow dough and an endless parade of new sweet and savory ideas every year. Personally, I am all for it. I want Jews to celebrate holidays with desserts their ancestors ate, yet improve upon the traditional recipes. Bakers should use modern trends for inspiration and show our children and the world that hamantashen are not to be missed.
To create your own hamantashen, find a dough recipe you love, or start with mine, and add an extract or flavoring such as any booze, favored coffee syrups or food coloring; knead small things such as seeds, chopped nuts, sprinkles or non-pareils right into the dough and then try fillings from other desserts that you love. Use pies, sandwich cookies and pretty much any cream-filled dessert for inspiration.