Before my mother-in-law stopped baking hamantaschen, she passed her recipe on to me, on three index cards covered with her loopy, barely legible handwriting. The recipe instructed me to brush the tops of the cookies with milk before baking, and then sprinkle them with sugar. But on the back of the last card, at the point where the cookies are out of the oven and already cooling on the rack, she’d added one last note: “I don’t bother sprinkling with milk and sugar—it doesn’t add anything.” This last sentence, informing me that what I had just done wasn’t really worth doing and didn’t meet with her satisfaction anyway, pretty neatly expresses the essence of our relationship.
I never made them while she was still alive because I could never have subjected myself to her comments after tasting one. But when the tins of hamantaschen stopped arriving from the Bronx at Purim, I knew the time had come to bake them myself. And I was determined to do even better than she had.
My mother-in-law was an orderly person, so I think she would have chosen to bake hamantaschen even if they weren’t a celebratory cookie with cultural significance. For they are neat and orderly little cookies, beginning life as circles, then transforming into triangular packets, clever little containers, with a few deft pinches. I never watched her make them, but I can imagine her, apron on, in her tiny little kitchen, her tiny little table covered with dozens and dozens of precise dough circles and a jar of prune lekvar. Tins and mailing boxes for all the relatives ready and waiting. Filling, folding, pinching, baking, packing, and shipping, all with assembly-line efficiency. That was her style.
But surely, I thought, I could make better filling at home, some lovingly cooked concoction of fruit that would be more delicious than what she could buy in a jar? I turned to my trendiest baking cookbook, the one with the most photographs, and found some 21st-century hamantaschen. Here the dough was to be rolled to an eighth of an inch. This seemed a little thin but worth a try. The filling was made from sour cherries. Sour cherries! How could this not beat prune from a jar?
Every Purim, for many years, my mother-in-law sent us a tin of not-enough hamantaschen. Half were prune and half apricot. Years of investigation failed to reveal which was superior, so they were always eaten two at a time. But family legend also told of another flavor she had often made in the past. This mythical flavor was mohn, a poppy-seed filling. My father-in-law had been a fan of mohn. Such a crunchy, Old World bitterness they must have had, mohn hamantaschen. They must have been hamantaschen for grown-ups. Poppy seeds, ground, sweetened, cooked in custard. This seemed like an acquired taste. Being unattractive to children, they were always, my husband tells me, the last ones left in the tin. There would be the tin sitting on the counter, and he and his brother and sisters would think, “Look, hamantaschen!” But then once they opened the tin they would sigh, “Oh, only mohn,” and close the lid again (still with a cookie in hand, however). In later years, my mother-in-law only made mohn for my brother-in-law David. Everyone “knew” that only Uncle David liked mohn. He must have told her so once, politely taking a cookie that everyone else was avoiding. So in his tin, there was always some mohn. Did he eat them? Who knows? He got them reliably once a year. Until that terrible year, that terrible year, and then when Purim came in the spring after Sept. 11 my mother-in-law didn’t make any mohn. Because only Uncle David had liked mohn.
The dough recipe in the fancy cookbook had an awful lot of butter, and lemon zest, and I thought, how elegant. Dried sour cherries—which cost a whole lot more than prune lekvar would have, if I had been able to get it—were simmered with cinnamon for the filling. The cinnamon should have been a dead giveaway. These were crisp and dainty cookies, with an exotic filling, but they were not hamantaschen.
My mother-in-law complained about everyone’s baking except her own. Her most damning insult, delivered in a dramatic stage whisper, was to accuse someone of “baking on margarine!” It took me a long time to figure out what she meant by this. Did her baking adversary just grease the pans with margarine, or did it actually go into the dough? Even between South Jersey and the Bronx, there was sometimes a language barrier. My mother-in-law made a party, she never threw it, and when she did, she always baked on butter. With me, civility had to be maintained, even when she had something to say about my baking. “What these oatmeal muffins need is zip. When I want zip, I add some cinnamon.” I bit my tongue and decided I hated cinnamon. So what was I thinking, now, with the cinnamon?
I grew up baking from Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Cookies. I knew what I was doing. I knew about zip. So after the sour cherry let-down, I turned to Maida Heatter. Of course she has a recipe in this cookie bible for hamantaschen. Looking closely over the recipe for the dough, I couldn’t help but notice that it is my mother-in-law’s recipe exactly. My mother-in-law would never have held with Maida Heatter when it came to important Jewish baking. Maida Heatter’s lineage should inspire confidence, but she is a cookie universalist. And yet here is the flour, the butter, the sugar, all measurements identical. I imagine the crisscrossing paths these two recipes had taken to meet here in my kitchen, traveling across oceans and through the soft and wrinkled flour-covered hands of grandmothers. In Maida Heatter’s recipe, it was the filling that was different—it included both apricots and prunes! Cooked to a sticky delicious jam, together. No decisions to make. I felt like I was getting somewhere now.
I did not willingly bake for my mother-in-law until the year before she died. When we visited the apartment on Saturdays, my daughter would come along. My mother-in-law, bent carefully forward wrapped in her bathrobe, would sit watching my daughter knit, offering guidance with, for once, no criticism crouching behind it. She grew thin. One day I brought a few muffins, made with whole oranges ground with chocolate. She ate them with gusto. So I brought them again, and soon I began to bring extra to leave in her freezer. The nurses said she ate little else, little else besides these muffins that I had baked.
Hamantaschen also freeze well. The little triangles can go in the freezer between shaping and baking. I froze some last year, for a child away at college. Later, as they were ready to go in the oven, I thought, why not try brushing them with milk and sprinkling them with sugar, as the recipe said? All the rest of the work had already been done on another day. I used whole milk, turbinado sugar. It was subtle but nice. The next day, though, the hamantaschen came out of the tin soggy. They’d completely lost their crunch as the sugar drew in moisture from the air. Not only did it the milk and sugar topping not add anything, it actually took something away.
Serious bakers who keep kosher can choose between dairy and non-dairy hamantaschen doughs. There are recipes out there for fillings made from mincemeat, cream cheese, caramel and apples, and even mango and coconut. It doesn’t seem right, to me, to fill them with anything my mother-in-law’s grandmother couldn’t have found in her village in Russia. So apples would be all right but forget about mangoes. Mohn, too, would maybe be OK. How about that? Maybe next year, it will be time to try mohn.
Daphne Keller writes and bakes in Shrewsbury, New Jersey. She is currently at work on a novel about the life of Lillian Wald.