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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Vegan Halvatashen for Fierce Queens

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Queen Esther may have saved our people from Haman’s evil plot but that’s not the only thing she’s known for.

The beautiful bride of the king of ancient Shushan, who foiled the dastardly adviser’s scheme to kill the Jewish community in Persia, was probably vegan. According to legend, because Esther’s Uncle Mordecai believed that anti-Semitism abounded in the ancient land, he advised her to hide her identity. Because the palace didn’t serve kosher food, Esther subsisted on seeds and grains, fresh fruit and vegetables and, some say, also “seedpods,” which are thought to be legumes. In this way, she kept her identity a secret and managed to steal the king’s heart. 

When the courageous queen found out that the future of her people was at stake, she quickly devised a scheme of her own: honesty. Yes, she admitted she was Jewish and told the king that Haman was plotting against her community. We know the rest of the story: Haman and his mean sons were hanged and Queen Esther lived to rule her vegan palace — and we are stuck eating hamantashen on Purim until the end of time.

Ask the average Israeli where to find the best hamantashen, and you’ll get a blank stare. The word hamantashen, used to describe traditional Purim cookie, is thought to be derived from the German and is a puny take on Haman’s pockets and ears and perhaps even his satchel. In Hebrew, the words “Oznei Haman” (Haman’s ears) reflect the Jewish sense of humor and the way Jews coped with living as outcasts by turning something evil into something sweet. Historian Gil Marks wrote, “The tradition forged by life in exile and a vital element in dealing with it particularly manifests itself on Purim, a time when joking and frivolity is encouraged.” 

In Tel Aviv in particular, Purim is all about the party, the costumes, celebrating, drinking and eating, the last two in the extreme. All bakeries break out their Oznei Haman usually starting a few weeks before the holiday. Queen Esther’s predilection for seeds made poppy seed-filled cookies the standard and,  until about 10 years ago, poppy seed, chocolate, apricot and raspberry were the only flavors you could find. Now, of course, Israeli pastry chefs, trying to outdo one another creatively, have made savory Oznei Haman with stuffings of spinach, goat cheese, and caramelized onion just as common as sweet varieties. Pistachio cream, ricotta, candied fruit, chocolate dulce de leche, and vanilla lavender are but a few of the contenders in Israel’s cutting-edge bakeries, as are hundreds of other varieties. 

“Taking inspiration from the mysterious and sensuous Persian kitchen can turn bemoaning wasted calories into a new addiction.”

The cookie-filling variations aside, many hamantashen recipes in the United States open with a disclaimer along the lines of “I never really liked this cookie …” or “Most hamantashen are bland, dry and overly sweet.” I can’t argue with those sentiments. In fact, to me, most of the Ashkenazi versions of Jewish pastries such as rugalach, honey cake and hamantashen fall firmly in the “calories wasted on nostalgic foods you don’t actually like” category. But taking inspiration from the mysterious and sensuous Persian kitchen can turn bemoaning wasted calories into a new addiction. 

Because Iranian Jews on Purim tend to eat Persian halvah, a delectable combination of saffron and cardamom sugar-scented butter, flour and tahini studded with nuts and roses, why not riff on that theme and create a halvah hamantashen that even Queen Esther could fit into her beauty regimen? Absent from this recipe is butter and loads of sugar but it’s replaced by a lightly sweetened and tender crumbed vegan dough made with coconut oil and a touch of rosewater and filled with a simple orange and cardamom-scented halvah interior that encapsulates the very essence of the exotic. 

Sure, a week ago there were rockets fired into Tel Aviv but you can be sure that this week, the Purim revelry will go on boldly and unabashed. After all, we are celebrating the courage and principles of a Persian queen without whose heroism our people may have perished before we ever had the chance to be brave ourselves.

VEGAN HALVATASHEN

For the dough:
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
4 tablespoons powdered sugar
1/4 cup room-temperature coconut oil (not melted)
1 teaspoon rosewater (optional)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup almond milk (or other vegan milk)
1 tablespoon orange rind

For the filling:
1 cup raw tahini (sesame paste)
1 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 tablespoon honey
1/4 teaspoon cardamom powder
1/4 cup water, or as needed

Sesame seeds, chopped pistachio nuts, chopped candied orange peel, candied                          
rose petals for garnish (all optional)

Place flour, baking powder, salt and sugar into a food processor and pulse to blend dry ingredients. Add the room-temperature coconut oil and continue to pulse until mixture becomes crumbly.

Add rosewater and vanilla extract and gradually the milk, only until the mixture comes together into a soft ball. Pulse in the orange rind. Do not over process.

Removed ball of dough from the food processor, wrap in cling film and place in refrigerator until thoroughly chilled — at least 2 hours up to overnight.

To make the filling, mix together tahini, powder sugar, orange juice, honey, cardamom and then add cold water one tablespoon at a time until the mixture is smooth and the consistency of peanut butter. You want a thick filling — do not add too much water. Set filling aside until ready to assemble. 

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Remove dough from refrigerator and place on a lightly-floured surface. Roll out dough to 1/8-inch thickness. Using a 3-inch glass rim or cookie cutter, cut dough into circles. Place 1 teaspoon of filling in the center of each circle. 

Fold top of circle toward the center, left side toward the center and bottom of circle toward the center creating a triangle shape. Pinch dough tightly at edges of triangle and make sure the middle of the circle with the filling is showing. 

Place on parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Brush with a bit of vegan milk or water and sprinkle with sesame seeds or finely chopped pistachio pieces (if using.)

Place baking sheet in refrigerator for about 1 hour before baking so that cookies will hold their shape. 

Bake for approximately 15 minutes or until light golden brown. Rotate the baking tray back to front halfway through baking.

Cool thoroughly on a rack and use a fine sieve to decorate with a touch of powdered sugar before serving.

Makes 24.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co. 

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