Kosher bakers who cater to Baltimore's Jewish community are elbow-deep in flour and toiling at a frantic pace to prepare for the merry Jewish holiday of Purim.
From their industrial-size ovens come a triangle-shaped pastry called hamantaschen (pronounced hah-mahn-tah-shuhn) that is both delicious and symbolic.
The filled cookielike pastry celebrates the rescue of the Persian Jews from a wicked man named Haman. The story, with more intrigue than a modern-day soap opera, is told in the scroll of Esther and will be recounted in synagogues during the holiday, which starts at sundown Monday.
According to the story, Esther was the young and beautiful Jewish wife of King Ahasuerus. Haman, the king's evil minister, persuaded Ahasuerus to kill all the Jews in his kingdom. Esther fasted, eating nothing but seeds, and prayed for her people to be spared.
Her prayers were answered, and a traditional pastry was born, representing Haman's triangular hat (although some insist the hamantaschen resembles his ears). Those seeds Esther ate during her fast are remembered, too, with the poppy-seed filling that is popular in hamantaschen.
During Purim, synagogues will be bursting with noise when children, dressed in costume to resemble Esther and other players in the story, rattle noisemakers at the mention of Haman's name. A traditional part of the holiday is giving food to the poor, friends, relatives, schools and nursing homes.
"They'll be plenty of customers getting hamantaschen for families to give to others and to put in prepared baskets," said Scott Zangwill, owner of Schmell & Azman's Bakery on Reisterstown Road. "We'll be going around the clock trying to keep up with the orders."
The spirit of old Jewish bakeries lingers at Schmell & Azman's in large part because of the presence of Rabbi Ben Cohen, a soft-spoken man with a cascading gray beard, who works part time ringing up braided challah bread, Hanukkah cookies, hamantaschen and other baked goods for patrons.
"Here's two cookies for you," Cohen said to a girl and her older brother visiting the bakery with their mother, who leaves the shop with a couple of hamantaschen and a loaf of rye bread.
Like other nearby kosher bakeries that anchor the community, Schmell & Azman's makes hamantaschen with an assortment of fillings: cherry, apple, blueberry, apricot, chocolate chip, lemon, peach and pineapple.
Children scramble for the cherry hamantaschen with the bright red filling, but many adults and traditionalists favor the muhn (poppy seed) version because of its ties to Queen Esther. Muhn is the Yiddish word for poppy seeds, which to many Jews also sounds like the name Haman.
"I love hamantaschen. I eat it all year long," says Cohen, who confesses to a nibble or two from the bakery's display case. "Mainly, I like the cookie-dough taste."
Embracing the spirit of giving during Purim, the rabbi plans to deliver sweet hamantaschen and other food gifts to at least 30 people, many of whom live in his nearby Park Heights neighborhood in Pikesville.
Bakers at Adler's Bakery in Pikesville began cranking out their version of hamantaschen a month ago, when inquiring calls started pouring into the bakery.
"Ours are a tender cookie-cake dough and not overly sweet," said Seth Adler, who does baker's duty during the weeks leading to Purim. "They bring back early childhood memories."
Customers are sent out the bakery door with a smile, especially if they purchase what Adler calls the "the Texas-size hamantaschen," measuring 4 1/2 inches across. They sell for $1.35 and go fast.
At Goldman's Kosher Bakery, Max Cohn and staff, which includes his father, a baker who passed the skill onto his son, are turning out hamantaschen by the thousands. Within a few days, "Every nook and cranny will be filled with hamantaschen," Cohn said. "It's always a busy, hectic holiday. ... We have hamantaschen year-around, but the people come out of the woodwork when it comes to Purim."
In the heart of the bakery is a mammoth double-rack rotating oven capable of turning out 160 dozen mini-hamantaschen, or 80 dozen large pastries, every 19 minutes. Cohn introduced Baltimore to a new hamantaschen when he offered customers a mini, a sugar-free and a dairy (cheese) version of the pastry.
"The reason for the cheese hamantaschen is that we have a separate dairy kitchen on the premises," Cohn said. "All other items are pareve [no butter or milk]."
Cohn also makes a softer- to-chew yeast-dough haman- taschen for his older pa- trons and sells the traditional cookielike dough raw for people who want to enjoy making the pastry at home.
"All they have to do is take it home, put in their favorite filling and take it from there."
David Conn, director of the Maryland Jewish Alliance, will be making a hamantaschen delivery to Annapolis, transporting 250 of the pastries to the office of Montgomery County Del. Adrienne A. Mandel.
The sweet treats will be individually wrapped in plastic bags by Mandel's staff and other volunteers and delivered to members of the Maryland General Assembly on March 18, along with a brief explanation of the holiday.
"It's becoming a very nice tradition for the legislature," said Conn, who favors the classic poppy-seed hamantaschen he savored growing up in Baltimore.
Mandel resurrected the friendly gesture started earlier by a former official and has been spreading hamantaschen cheer since 1996.
"The hamantaschen is very well received," said Mandel, who remembers making the pastry with her grandmother and later with her children. "We try to make the explanation of the holiday widely known, ... that goodness triumphs over wickedness and evil, a message that is universal today."
Dough for Hamantaschen
Makes about 25 to 30
4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
juice and zest (very finely grated rind) of 1 whole orange
juice and zest (very finely grated rind) of 1 whole lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla
sugar to sprinkle over hamantaschen before baking
shortening to grease cookie sheet
GLAZE AND SEALER:
1 egg, beaten and diluted with 1 teaspoon water and 1 tablespoon heavy cream (use nondairy creamer to make a pareve version)
In a large bowl, sift flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. In another large bowl, beat eggs with an electric mixer until fluffy and set aside. In a third bowl, combine sugar, vegetable oil, orange and lemon juices and zests and vanilla. Add this juicy mixture to the eggs and blend well. Then add flour-baking power-salt mixture and continue mixing until your dough forms a ball and pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
Turn dough out onto a well-floured board and knead until it no longer sticks to your fingers. Divide dough into 4 sections. On a well-floured board, using a floured rolling pin, roll out the dough to a 1/8 -inch thickness. Have filling, egg glaze, sugar, cookie cutter, flatware teaspoon, pastry brush and greased cookie sheet close at hand.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Use a cookie cutter (or jar lid) to create circles about 4 inches in diameter. Place about 1 teaspoon (a flatware teaspoon, not a culinary measuring spoon) of the filling in the center of the circle, fold in sides, and press dough to seal, creating two sides of a triangle. Use a little of the egg glaze mixture as "glue" if you need it. Then fold the bottom of the circle up to form the third side of your "tricorne," leaving a little of the filling visible in the center.
Brush top side of each pastry well with egg-glaze mixture, sprinkle with sugar and place on the greased cookie tray. Because cutting circles leaves a lot of marginal dough, you'll have to gather scraps in a ball and roll them out again. Bake for 20 minutes or until your hamantaschen are a light golden-brown (check after 15 minutes to see how they're doing). Let hamantaschen cool before you remove them from the baking pan with a spatula.
- From "The Second Avenue Deli Cookbook" by Sharon Lebewohl and Rena Bulkin (Villard Books, 1999)
Makes enough filling for 25 to 30 pastries
3/4 cup poppy seeds
3 tablespoons honey
1/4 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup dark raisins, finely chopped
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon rind
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans
Pour boiling water over the poppy seeds and set aside for 15 minutes. Drain and grind (or put in your food processor) with the honey, brown sugar, raisins and lemon rind. Transfer mixture to a bowl and thoroughly blend in finely chopped nuts.
-- From "The Second Avenue Deli Cookbook" by Sharon Lebewohl and Rena Bulkin (Villard Books, 1999)