This is an authentic, Old-Vienna recipe for the triangular cookies of the Jewish holiday Purim. Purim is something like a Jewish Mardi Gras.1
I’m presenting Viennese aspects of the hamantasch that you probably didn’t know — a whole Megillah2!
Hamantaschen in Vienna.
Let’s immediately dive into the subject from the Viennese side of things. First I’ll tell you about “hamantascherln.” Vienna’s word for this traditional Jewish delicacy. When the word hamantaschen is written with “sch,” it most likely hints at a German/Austrian language origin of the recipe that you’re looking at. When spelled with “sh,” it is most likely transliterated from Yiddish.
For example, in New York, I frequently saw them spelled hamantaschen with an “sch.” Indeed, many immigrants to New York came from the defunct Habsburg empire, straight from Vienna or other German-speaking regions of the old country. This makes sense, as, before the extermination of Europe’s Jews, Vienna was home to one of the world’s largest Jewish populations.
HamantascheRLn: The diminutive via “rl”
In Old-Vienna, meaning good old, romanticized, waltzing, pre-Shoah Vienna, the hamantaschen were typically referred to by their diminutive, hamantascherln (singular: hamantascherl), with an “rl” added at the end. This specifically means small hamantaschen. The use of diminutives, the minimization as a form of endearment, is very common in Vienna. As an example of this usage with regard to the hamantasch, I think of Jewish musician and comedian Oscar Teller (1902-1985)3 and his song about hamantscherln.4
The text of this song, underscored with the melody of a traditional Viennese horse cabby song, was written for Oscar Teller by Jewish Viennese author Friedrich Torberg (1908-1979).5 As improbable as it may seem, the text of the song expresses the wish for a Jewish cookie named after Hitler (יש”ו).6 The song claims that Jews always have something to eat in connection with their enemies, and cites the hamantascherln for Purim and the matzo for pharaoh on Passover. Oscar Teller’s song muses on what this baked Jewish delicacy for the Führer would be like. “Halevai7,” he seems to exclaim, “If only there was already a cookie named after the great dictator.”8
What Does Hamantaschen Mean in Vienna?
“Taschen” means pockets in German (singular is “Tasche,”) and in Yiddish as well. Hence, “Tascherln” means small pockets. Granted, “tash” also means to weaken in Hebrew, thus, to weaken Haman, the bad guy in the Purim story, the megillah.
This explenation makes it even more plausible that German and Yiddish-speaking Jews favored the ending “en” as in taschEN. This use also makes it into a verb in a German-Yiddish-Hebrew-mix: to “taschen,” to weaken.
But why pockets? What is it about Haman’s pockets? In the real world, pockets are often empty except for some lint. But in the wonderful world of baked goodies, pockets have fillings. The most traditional filling for hamantasch is poppy seeds, known as “Mohn” in German.
What does Hamantasch mean in Vienna, or to a Jewish German-speaking ear? The answer lies precisely in this Yiddish and German word “Mo(h)n” for poppy seeds, which in the German pronunciation can sound almost like “man,” as in Haman. The “ha” in front is in this case simply the Hebrew definitive article “the”. Hence, hamantascherln, is also a mix of Hebrew, Yiddish, and Viennese German, translating and meaning “Haman’s small poppy seed pockets.”
Manna from Heaven.
Yiddish adds another layer of meaning: In Yiddish, “mon” does not only mean poppy seeds, but also means “manna,” the sustenance that came from heaven. It’s the Hebrew word for manna used in the Torah, the Jewish bible. This is also the reason why we find poppy seeds, a/k/a “mon,” on challos,9 the Jewish bread for the Sabbath. I guess the reason why other hamantaschen fillings are inherently acceptable is that manna could have any taste you wished. Though poppy seed is the most authentic filling, any other filling can be used.
In the United States, apricot filling is so omnipresent that some think it’s the traditional filling. Raspberry is another popular choice. In Israel, the favorite fillings are dates and chocolate, or — even better — chocolate hazelnut. (You can get filling made with real gianduia10 if you are very lucky, Nutella if you are out of luck, and an Israeli kosher chocolate shmear if you are in trouble.) In pre-Shoah Vienna, red currant jam was very popular, encased in a shortcake cookie dough much like our melt-in-the-mouth Wiener Hamantascherln recipe below. The classic fillings are a kind of thick prune jam, called powidl in Austria, and (of course) poppy seeds.
The Hamantasch and Purim.
But what do Hamantaschen (Haman’s pockets) really have to do with Purim? Beyond being simply Haman’s pockets — or pockets filled with poppy seeds — what do they have to do with Purim? How did they come to represent Purim?
The answer lies in their triangular shape. For some — and this is a classic explanation that comes up repeatedly in discussions — the shape has to do with Haman’s hat, a triangular, Napoleon-like hat, a so-called tricorn that was popular in the 18th century. There’s probably something to this folklore interpretation, but for me, it’s a weak explanation. We are most likely eating this triangular hat simply because it is filled with uncountable poppy seeds, like the myriads of coins Haman offered to King Ahashverosh in payment for being allowed to persecute the Jews. Okay for the poppy seeds, again, but why eat a triangular hat that was in fashion in the 1700s and that we call taschen, or “(weakening) pockets”? And why should we eat a hat at all, whatever the shape? It’s like we’re some looney toon that eats his or his enemies’ hat out of anger or spite!
The answer is most likely related to Napoleonic times, when the phrase “to eat the hat of our enemy,” was popularized, referring to Napoleon, the enemy of humanity as he is called in War and Peace. “Our” enemy, you might ask? Well, we’re talking about anti-enlightenment forces like the Hasidic rabbis.
For the poppy seeds, another far more plausible narrative is found in the Talmud (Megillah 13a), which recounts how Esther subsisted on nothing but seeds in order to keep kosher in the palace of King Ahashverosh.
But still, why this triangular shape?
A Symbol of Fertility.
Edie Jarolim, of Freud’s Butcher,11 pointed us some time ago to an article by Susan Schnur over at the fascinating, independent, Jewish, and frankly feminist magazine Lilith.12 Schnur’s article, From Prehistoric Cave Art to Your Cookie Pan. Tracing the Hamantasch Herstory,”13 reminds us that the Hamantasch is, above all, a fertility symbol!
My guess is that because poppy seeds are first of all seeds — tiny seeds, but still the source of new life — and because they are small seeds, the hamantascherln’s small pockets can hold a lot of them. Despite what I said before, these seeds are not countless, but rather — just like the seeds of a pomegranate on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year — probably close to 613. This is the very same as the number of mitzvoth, God’s commandments that are to be performed as a religious duty14.
Esther, the heroine of the book by the same name, is a Jewish girl who was chosen for her beauty to become the king’s new wife. Esther, so Schnur’s article goes on to tell us, is also an ancient mythological life cycle goddess who is undercover in the Jewish megillah. The hamantasch’s shape is non-coincidentally triangular, echoing ancient fertility symbols representing the female sex.
I really like the reference to an ancient fertility symbol, and thus the female sex. It seems to be the most convincing explanation for the triangular shape and the poppy seeds. Still, I had a hunch that there was probably even more to it … something more Viennese and more modern — a psychoanalytic angle.
I wasn’t disappointed when I browsed through past articles of the famously hilarious “Great Latke-Hamantash Debate”15. There’s a contribution by Harold T. Shapiro titled “The Hamantash and the Foundation of Civilization; or, The Edible Triangle, the Oedipal Triangle, and the Interpretation of History.”16 This directs our attention to the epicurean significance of the edible triangle in light of the literary Oedipal triangle:
In Freud’s conscious memory of the dream, he mistook Sophocles’ Oedipal Triangle for the Edible Triangle of Purim — the hamantash — and thus came to a completely erroneous view of the true origins of his interpretation of civilization. Through the mysterious role of transference, he mistakenly attributed the primal force of Purim’s Edible Triangle— the hamantash — to Sophocles’ Oedipal Triangle.
Seemingly, Sigmund Freud’s childhoods food, little Sigi’s hamantaschen, changed the course of history, or at least of intellectual history. Additionally, Freud’s transference acts upon Judaism’s Hellenistic enemies — the enlightened enemy of another Jewish woman. Judith is renowned from another Jewish festival — namely Hanukkah — represented by the other great Jewish food (the latke, or, Jewish hash brown,) in a great debate with the hamantaschen. But let me close this parenthesis here.
This reference to Sigmund Freud’s Oedipal triangle is not only amusing to the Freudian and Viennese scholar who loves Hamantascherln, but the Oedipal triangles present in the megillah of Esther are indeed quite intriguing. There are at least four corners in what might be a squaring of the circle of Esther, Vashti, Mordechai, and Ahashverosh which are pinched together to form triangular pockets of poppy seeds of Oedipal force.
Bitten Off Loose Ends.
I find the combinations where Esther is both niece — a kind of permitted daughter in Judaism at least — and wife with an absent mother — disconcerting. The story has taken care of the mother — has evacuated her in other words. The third corner of the Oedipal triangle was bitten off, to remain in the hamantaschen imagery. This raises some of the more difficult questions of Purim, including what is the relation between Ahashverosh, Esther, and Vashti — Vashti, the king’s previous wife, whose only crime it was not to dance naked in front of the king, the patriarch?17
Obviously, there are other challenging problems that I must at least mention at this point. They may end up being the focus of an upcoming post on other Purim delicacies. These problems include, but are obviously not limited to, the relationships between Esther, Mordechai, and the Jewish people. The megillah apparently tells the story of a genocide viewed as the revenge of the oppressed: The establishment of a castrating patriarchy, oppressing women, etc.)
Finally, let’s see the appropriate hamantascherln recipe from Old Vienna:
The Proper Viennese Way.
And with that, much like the caricature of a Viennese from Old-Vienna on his day off, on the day of Purim we are supposed to drink enough to find the difference between good and evil indistinguishable, including between the good and the bad guy of the story, Mordechai and Haman respectively. We are setting our system of values aside. On Purim, we dress ourselves up as our enemy and disguise ourselves to change our identities. We express something that is normally suppressed, or play at something completely uncharacteristic of us, the Other. But all of this lasts only a moment, just one single day.
The Old-Vienna hamantascherln recipe we found is similarly in disguise. It is a Jewish recipe pretending to be straight goyish, or gentile, just like Esther did at the court of Ahashverosh. Amidst the great cultural mix and ambient anti-Semitism that existed in Old-Vienna of the early 1900s, cookbooks were written for a general audience that contained recipes that the Jewish audience could easily adapt for kosher needs and for the Jewish holidays. They were written that way from the outset, indicating necessary substitutions and adjustments.
A Jewish Viennese Recipe in Disguise.
So where did we find this authentic Viennese hamantasch recipe? It came from one of the best-known examples of this type of secularized, cosmopolitan cookbook: Olga and Adolf Hess’ “Viennese Cooking” which was published in 1913 and translated into English later, in New York. This is a classic cookbook written under a gentile name and shape. Susanne Belovari has amply described the Jewish readability and the way it was common practice for Jews to read such a cookbook that catered to their requirements, in her fundamental research on this topic: The Viennese Cuisine before Hitler — “One Cuisine in the Use of Two Nations”18.
In this Viennese cookbook — this fascinating vestige of cosmopolitan and multi-cultural Vienna — we find a recipe titled Wiener Tascherln, or “Viennese small pockets/Taschen.” Note the diminutive “rl” here, too. These are triangular pockets made out of squares instead of the circles classically used for hamantaschen.
A Modernist Recipe.
Olga and Adolf Hess chose a classic cookie dough for their Wiener Tascherln, which were hamantascherln in disguise. It is a recipe for melt-in-the-mouth hamantaschen Purim cookies rather than your typical dry and crumbly étouffe-chrétien, or any of the dangerously stodgy treats like in the historic yeasty or more recent baking-powderish recipes favored by many, including the Israeli food industry. These two varieties of hamantaschen doughs, as well as a third which is the one favored by us and “Viennese Cooking”, are the three prevalent hamantasch doughs out there.
Our Viennese hamantascherln cookie dough is a modern-day, meaning Viennese Modernist, 1900-kind of Linzer shortcake cookie dough rather than the centuries-old, traditional soft yeast dough. Still, this hamantaschen dough is more or less identical to many of the handed-down family recipes we have gathered in Bnei Brak over the years. These modern cookie dough versions seem to have spread throughout Yiddishkeit. In her canonical “Book of Jewish Food,” Claudia Roden, one of the grande dames of Jewish cooking, also presents hamantaschen made with a no-yeast, no-baking-powder shortbread crust cookie dough. Evelyne Rose, in her “International Jewish Cookbook,” hands down the heading “melt-in-the-mouth” for this type of buttery cookie dough hamantaschen.
Chag Purim Sameach ! חג פורים שמח
A freilichen Pirim ! א פרייליכן פורים
Hamantascherln — Small Poppy Seed Pockets, Viennese Style.
Dairy versus Pareve.
The fantastic melt-in-the-mouth feel gets somewhat lost if you use margarine instead of butter, but if you insist it is certainly doable. If you go the parve route, don’t forget to use margarine and grape juice for the poppy seed filling below.
Hard-boiled Egg Yolks Pressed Through A Sieve.
Yes, this is a real old-school European pro tip. If you’ve read any old cookbooks you’ve certainly come across this trick: Adding a hard-boiled egg yolk pressed through a sieve to your cookie dough makes for an exceptionally tender and delicate final result.
- 430g (2 3/4 cups) all-purpose flour + more to flour the surface
- 275g (1 1/4 cups) butter
- 140g (2/3 cup) sugar
- 4 teaspoons lemon rind, zested into the sugar
- 2 hard-boiled egg yolks pressed through a sieve
- 1 raw egg yolk
- Pinch of iodine-free salt
- 60ml (1/4 cup) rum
- Approximately 1 cup of filling (see the classic poppy seed filling recipe below)
- Zest the lemon rind into the sugar. Mix well.
- Press the two hard-boiled egg yolks through a sieve if you haven’t done so yet.
- Mix all the ingredients except the filling with your hands to mix them well. Quickly form a ball of dough.
- Wrap in cling film and refrigerate the dough for 2 hours or overnight.
- Preheat the oven to 300°F (150°C)
- Let the dough and the filling get to room temperature (1 to 2 hours) until gets smooth and easy to work with. Lightly flour the surface where you will roll out the dough. Roll out to approximately 1/5 of an inch (5mm).
- Cut out circles of dough of about 3 inches or 8 cm. You can use a pastry circle or a large glass. Place the circles of dough upside down on a baking sheet lined with baking paper.
- Fill the circles of dough with approximately 1 teaspoon of filling placed in the center.
- Form the triangles by lifting up three sides of the circle to form a triangle, pinching the corners: Start by lifting the right side of the circle and fold it towards the center to make a flap that covers approximately one-third of the circle. Continue with the left side of the triangle: Fold it towards the center, overlapping by approximately the same amount to create a triangular tip at the top of the circle. The filling should still be visible in the center. Grab the bottom part of the circle and fold it upward to create a third flap and complete the triangle. Pinch the corners together or tuck one flap beneath the other.
- Arrange on a baking sheet. Don’t let them touch. They might spread a tiny bit. Bake in a regular convection oven for 40 minutes at 300°F (150°C).
- Carefully lift the cookies from the baking sheet or they will break. Let cool on a rack.
- Dust with confectioner’s sugar.
Classic Poppy Seed Filling
Grinding Poppy Seeds
Poppy seeds should not be ground but crushed, because this is the only way to unfold the unique taste. So, do not mix poppy seeds in a blender! You can either push the poppy seeds through a food grinder, using the fine grinding plate or consider using a proper poppy seed mill. But you could also simply buy the poppy seeds already ground.
- 150g ground poppy seeds
- 175ml grape juice
- 2 Tablespoons honey
- 4 Tablespoons sugar
- 4 Tablespoons raisins
- 20g (1 1/2 Tablespoons) butter
- 2 lemons zested
- 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
- If your poppy seeds aren’t ground already, push the poppy seeds through a food grinder, using the fine grinding plate.
- Bring the grape juice to a boil in a small saucepan.
- Reduce the heat to low and add the ground poppy seeds.
- Add the rest of the ingredients except the lemon zest and lemon juice.
- Cook for 5 minutes on low. Stir constantly.
- Remove from the heat and add the lemon zest and the lemon juice.
- Let cool completely before using.
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- Do see Wikipedia’s article on Purim, link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purim
- Meaning: “Every aspect or element”. Here, the “Megillah” refers to the Book of Esther, one of the five sacred books of the Ketuvim (the third division of the Old Testament) in scroll form which is read in its entirety in the synagogue in the course of the festival of Purim. “The whole megillah” implies a long-winded and complicated story.
- Oscar Teller, born 1902 in Vienna, escaped the Shoah and died in 1985 in Giv’atajim, Israel. He and Viktor Schlesinger were the “Original Jewish Heurigen-Duo Teller and Schlesinger.” Heurigen is a traditional Viennese wine tavern (see my heurigen post.) They also formed a “Jewish Political Cabaret” in Vienna in the late 1920s.
- Here’s the original German text of the Haman song:I bin der alte Haman, mi tuat’s die Neuzeit stiern,Daß sich die Leut net schaman, die was mich heut kopiern,Denn ich war viel perverser als alle heut zusamm’–Ein Volk – ein Reich – ein Perser, das war mein Wahlprogramm.Ich war der erste Führer mit völkischen Ideen –Wollt mehr als Ahasveros sein, ein nationaler Heros sein.Drum nahm ich auch als erster die Juden mir aufs KornUnd schuf den echten persischen spontanen Volkeszorn.Es geht mir oft durch meinen Sinn, daß ich der erste Na-azi bin.Mein Stolz ist, ich bin halt an echt’s Perserkind,A Staatskanzler, wie man heut längst nimmer find’t.Beim Einsperr’n und Aufhängen tua i gern mitAls erster AntisemitIch bin der erste Nazi und hab’ an Schmarrn davon.Die Welt ist rund und draht si – a jeder kriegt sein’ Lohn.Die Juden zu vertilgen, das war mein schönster Traum –Erst hängt an diesem Traume man, doch dann hängt man am Baum.Ich glaub der Adolf g’spürt was und kommt sich spanisch vor,Schon oft hab’ ich ihm zugeschaut, wie er an Perser Teppich kaut.S’kriegt jeder, was ihm zukommt, es ist gesorgt dafür:Die Matzes g’hörn dem Pharao, die Hamantascherln mir.So schaut’s mit der Vertilgung aus:Der Jud macht sich ein Fressen draus.Mein Stolz ist, daß man mich halt nie mehr vergißt,Weil man mir zu Ehr’n eine Mehlspeise ißt.Bald essen’s, das ist schon dem Schicksal sein Lauf –A Mehlspeis – auf Hitler herauf.
- Very influential Viennese poet who famously invented the fictitious character Aunt Jolesch, as well as her cabbage and noodles, and who contributed to the so-called Sacher torte war. See Wikipedia link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Torberg
- Hebrew abbreviation for Yimakh Shemo: יִמַּח שְׁמוֹ (“May his name be erased”, link: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yimakh_shemo#:~:text=From%20Wikipedia%2C%20the%20free%20encyclopedia,enemies%20of%20the%20Jewish%20people.)
- A Hebrew word present in Yiddish meaning, “If only it were so.” This could be equated to the English expressions “I hope so,” or simply “If only”.
- Oscar Teller, “Davids Witz-Schleuder. Jüdisch-Politisches Cabaret” (Darmstädt Verlag, Darmstädter Blätter, 1982), page 283.
- Rashi, a medieval rabbi and author of a commentary on the Talmud and the Hebrew Bible, writes that mon looked like sesame seeds. That’s why some people put sesame seeds on their challos, others — like us — put both.
- The real-deal Italian chocolate hazelnut cream. See Wikipedia on gianduja link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gianduja_(chocolate)
- Edie Jarolim, Freud’s Butcher link: https://freudsbutcher.com/
- Lillith magazine, link: https://www.lilith.org/
- Susan Schnur, “From Prehistoric Cave Art to Your Cookie Pan. Tracing the Hamantasch Herstory.” in: Lilith, independent, Jewish & frankly feminist. Link: https://lilith.org/articles/from-prehistoric-cave-art-to-your-cookie-pan/
- See Wikipedia on mitzvoth, link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitzvah
- “The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate” edited by Ruth Fredman Cernea (University of Chicago Press: 2006), link: https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/G/bo3637853.html
- Harold T. Shapiro, “The Hamantash and the Foundation of Civilization; or, The Edible Triangle, the Oedipal Triangle, and the Interpretation of History.” in: “The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate” edited by Ruth Fredman Cernea (University of Chicago Press: 2006), pp.185-188, link: https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/G/bo3637853.html
- Thanks to Edie Jarolim, I was directed to a feature in the magazine Lilith titled “Our [Meaning Women’s] Book-of-Esther Problem,” link: https://lilith.org/articles/our-meaning-womens-book-of-esther-problem/
- See Susanne Belovari for her description of the phenomenon, link: https://sophiecoeprize.files.wordpress.com