A Bite Out of History
Updated: Mar 12
(by Haley Coopersmith)
A few years ago, I needed a family recipe for a workshop I was leading—a cross-continental digital art class between students in the Bronx and Israel. One of the important ways to share culture and heritage is through food, so I directed them to go home and ask for a family recipe, take photos and videos telling stories associated with the recipe, and then we would build the recipe out of clay or paint it.
I meant to call my mother for a recipe I knew she had: hamantashen. It’s the traditional treat for Purim, the joyful springtime holiday that celebrates overcoming a 4th century death edict, the political savvy and guile of a beautiful queen, and ultimately beating the odds. The triangular shape of the cookie represents the three-cornered hat of the Purim story’s villain, Haman, who planned to kill all the Jews in the Persian Empire. Supposedly taking a bite out of the cookie is in defiance of bowing down to an evil ruler.
My mother had never actually made the hamantashen. It was my grandmother’s recipe, and I knew it was in a cookbook that Gramma had given Mom when she married my dad. The value of the book is baked right into the title: A Treasure for My Daughter: An Invaluable Guide to Jewish Festivals, Traditions and Holidays with Menus and Recipes. Mom works full-time as a city planner in New York, and although she and my dad shared the mealtime responsibilities when I was growing up, it wasn’t her source of creativity and pleasure; knitting is more her thing. She knits a hat every day. (Anybody want one?) I’d made the hamantashen myself a few times, and Mom would follow me around the kitchen, cleaning up the cloud of flour swirling about me and washing the bowl immediately. That’s one of the ways we’re different. But we both have our moments of being exacting and our moments of being loosey-goosey. We’ve taken two mother-daughter trips, to Italy and London, where we’ve gotten to know each other more as friends, as women, and that’s where we let our guard down. What time are we getting up? Whatever. Wine with lunch? Why not?
I wanted to bring hamantashen to my class (from an early age, my mother taught me that you never go anywhere empty-handed, and you always serve food at a gathering). But in the busy-ness of lesson-planning while also applying to graduate school, I forgot to call my mom. So I turned to Google, the non-sectarian, non-denominational, non-familial repository of all knowledge (whether it’s accurate or not).
At 11:00 pm on the night before the workshop, I realized that none of my Google-able recipes were cutting it, and I needed the real deal.
Me at 11:03 pm: "How do you make hamantashen?"
Mom at 5:30 am: "Call Gramma."
I waited until a more reasonable hour the next day to call my grandmother in Florida, and she read off her recipe, ingredient by ingredient, as I diligently copied it down in my notebook; it felt like I was writing military secrets.
My students in the Bronx had never heard of hamantashen, and I was happy to share this special recipe with them, hoping that I was opening a pathway to family lore, celebrating their histories.
Three years later:
Me at 5:30 pm: I want to make hamantashen for Purim, but the recipe is lost in one of my old notebooks, and Gramma’s not answering the phone.
Mom sends the recipe at 5:32 pm.
And now that cookbook is mine.
Haley Coopersmith is the Manager of Public Programs for the Museum at Eldridge Street in New York City and is studying for a master's degree at Bank Street College of Education.
(adapted from A Treasure for My Daughter: An Invaluable Guide to Jewish Festivals, Traditions and Holidays with Menus and Recipes)
2 1/2 c. sifted all-purpose flour
2 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
3 eggs, beaten
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. vegetable oil
1 t. vanilla extract
juice and grated rind of 1/2 orange
1/2 c. raisins, soaked in warm water overnight and drained
1/2 c. chopped nuts
1/2 lb. prunes, pitted and chopped
1/2 c. sugar
juice and grated rind of 1 lemon
Sift together flour, baking powder and salt.
Combine 2 eggs with sugar, oil, and vanilla.
Add flour mixture, kneading until smooth.
Roll out on floured board to 1/4 in. thickness.
Cut into circles with round cookie cutter or glass tumbler.
Combine all ingredients for filling, and place a spoonful in center of each circle.
Draw up 3 sides to form a triangle, pinching edges together.
Beat the remaining egg and brush over the tips of the pastries.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Bake for 1/2 hour.
Other filling options include but are not limited to: apricot, poppy seed, chocolate chip, and marmalade (apricot, raspberry, strawberry, or orange)