Hamantashen? Not This Year

hamentaschen

We’re just a couple of weeks away from Passover and eight days of matzo, but I’m still thinking about Purim, now a few weeks in the rear view mirror.

 Several years ago, not long after I began writing this blog, I marveled at my amazing good fortune at having hamantashen show up in the break room at work around Purim time.  I had been craving these little jam-filled triangular cookies, probably owing more to nostalgia than to their flavor.  But there I was, working out in the desert, feeling exiled to the Diaspora as only a Jew can.

I’m fairly sure I was the only Jew in our little Colorado River town, and the last thing I expected was that anyone would have ever heard of hamantashen, much less have known where to get some.  I knew I could find something resembling the prune, apricot or cherry filled treats that I associated with the reading of the biblical Book of Esther each spring, if only I had the will to make the four-hour round trip to Palm Springs or the five-hour drive to Phoenix and back.  Granted, they wouldn’t be the same as the buttery pastries I remember from Pakula’s Bakery, now long gone mainstay of my hometown of Spring Valley, New York, but any facsimile would do in a pinch.  And I felt like pinching myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming when a package of hamantashen showed up on the round table in our break room.  As if out of thin air, an answer to prayer, were they really there?  Yes, I answered with the first taste.  Supermarket variety, to be sure, but it felt like a care package from home, shlach manot.  They turned out to be a gift to the staff from a former manager, now retired, who knew nothing of Purim when she picked up some cookies at a supermarket over in Indio.  It felt like nothing short of a Purim miracle.

Here in Sacramento, hamantashen are available at several retail stores.  And yet the irony is that, this Purim, I tasted none.  As it turned out, there are things other than miles that would distance me from hamantashen.  The bottom line is that when you’re vegan, gluten-free and have to watch your sugar intake, special holiday foods cannot be taken for granted, even when they are readily available.

I pondered whether, with the right ingredients and a bit of ingenuity, it might be possible to create hamantashen that would satisfy my food limitations.  Vegan margarine could easily substitute for butter, and a little oil or applesauce for an egg.  There are plenty of artificial sweeteners out there.  But what of the flour?  Could hamantashen be made of rice flour, almond flour or amaranth?

Yes! Turns out that, a fee years back, April Peveteaux over at Gluten is My Bitch posted a yummy-looking recipe for gluten-free, dairy-free hamantashen.  Sub applesauce for the eggs, bring out the Sweet ‘N Low or Splenda, use sugar-free jam for the filling, and I would venture to say we’re there. I don’t bake, but I hope someone will try it out and let me know whether it’s worth the effort.

I found another such recipe courtesy of Lisa Rose at realfoodkosher.com. She suggests using a combination of rice and almond flour and substituting coconut oil for butter.

And then I found a hamantashen recipe that is not only vegan and gluten-free, but also free of refined sugar (it calls for maple syrup), as well as this one that uses agave nectar.

Anyone want to make me some hamantashen?  Must be gluten-free and vegan.  I should have asked my mother-in-law.  She made me a batch a few years ago and they were some of the best I’ve ever eaten.

Short of homemade, however, I suppose these are my favorites, if only because I don’t have to prepare them.  At about a dollar an ounce, the price seems fairly reasonable.  The only time I ever ordered hamantashen through the mail, they came mostly broken, including more crumbs than I knew what to do with.  But those were “fresh” bakery-style, not packaged, so I suppose the result was to be expected.

I guess there’s not too much that you can’t buy online these days.  Maybe next year, eh?

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Toxic Birthday

manure

Visiting my parents has increasingly turned into a toxic experience.  It destroys my peace of mind, brings back dozens of bad memories and is even dangerous to my marriage.  All this goes double when my sister is in attendance.

The photo above doesn’t even begin to express my feelings on the matter.

Last weekend, we headed south to California’s Central Valley to celebrate my mother’s 81st birthday.  On Saturday, my sister and her two adult children came for the day.  I particular looked forward to visiting with my niece, whom I hadn’t seen in a couple of years even though she lives only two hours away.  When I first arrived in California in 1995, she was five years old.  It’s hard to believe that she’s now in her twenties, an accomplished artist and hardworking Starbucks barista who is struggling to finish college.  Her parents divorced just as she was preparing to start high school, which turned her life upside down.  She has always had a tight bond with her brother, and the two spent years living with their father and his second family.  Recently, however, my nephew, a Silicon Valley engineer, moved out of the parental home in the face of constant arguing and bickering over visits by his mother and his grandparents.  This has been particularly hard on my niece, who has an extreme (probably unhealthy) emotional attachment to her brother.

The issue of where to go out for dinner should have been settled by the birthday girl.  My mother, however, seemed to be completely shut out of this decision making process.  My sister started carrying on about how Outback Steakhouse, which she knew is a favorite of my parents and my wife, is the most unhealthful choice possible and out of the question.  My niece ended up deciding on dinner because she counts every calorie and is therefore somewhat limited.  I thought every place served salad and fish, but what do I know.  As to the vegan in the family, well, let’s just say that I know enough to bring my own food when I visit my parents.

We ended up at Red Lobster, my niece’s choice and my father’s favorite.  My parents dine there once a week anyway.  I was able to get by with steamed broccoli, a baked potato and a salad without dressing or croutons.  My mother ordered her favorite fried filet of sole, even though she keeps kosher and I have reminded her on several occasions that RL fries with lard.  I kept my mouth shut and let her enjoy.  After all, she’s 81.  Perhaps I’m biased, but it seems to me that, once you get to that age, you should be able to do whatever the heck you want without anyone hassling you.

On the phone with my mother the week before, I had asked her for ideas for a birthday present.  My father’s birthday is always easy:  The man likes beer.  But my mother doesn’t drink, likes to make her own clothes and doesn’t appreciate wasting money on frills and nonsense.  So I was surprised when she asked for chocolate.  Milk chocolate, she informed me, she doesn’t like.  (This was news to me, as it was her secret vice throughout my childhood.)  “Dark chocolate,” she told me, “but not the bitter kind that you eat.”  My mother is aware that, although I am a Type 2 diabetic, I have a proclivity for indulging in low sugar, nondairy chocolate that is mostly pure cocoa.  It is very bitter indeed, and I enjoy it a little too much.

The very fact that my mother would ask for sweets is amazing to me.  In years gone by, she would claim to have no interest in candy or other junk food, although we all knew that this was far from the case.

Still, I thought we could do far better than merely buying a box of chocolates.  To me, that sounds like something you bring to a sick person who is in the hospital.  I had a better idea (or so I thought).  My mother has gotten into baking in the last few years.  She whips up wonderful apple pies, has tried her hand at challahs (although not to her satisfaction) and even baked cookies recently.  I thought I’d capitalize on this interest by finding a baking cookbook.  After all, she recently told me that she’d borrowed some books in this vein from the library and that they didn’t seem to have what she was looking for.  We headed for Barnes & Noble, where I found cake books, cookie books, French baking books, dessert cookbooks and just about everything in between.  (And, by the way, I was amazed at the number of vegan and vegetarian cookbooks I found on the shelves.  Too bad I don’t cook.)  The only problem is that most of the prices ranged from $40 to $90, which we found to be rather steep.  I suppose I am severely out of touch with what these things cost.  So, chocolate it is.  We found four or five different types of dark chocolate, from solid chocolate bars to chocolate-covered blueberries.  This turned out to be a win-win situation.  We actually got my mother what she wanted without blowing our budget.

I was delighted to have an extended conversation with my niece during dinner.  I expressed an interest in her work and was regaled with stories of the life of a barista.  It saddened me somewhat when I realized that, in the course of an hour, we talked more than we have in a decade or more.  If I email my nephew, I know he’ll email me back.  My niece, however, doesn’t operate that way.  She has neither the time nor the patience to bother with email.  It would be nice if I could take advantage of this opportunity to expand the dialogue and develop more of a relationship with my niece.  However, I doubt that this is a reasonable expectation.

Alas, things went downhill from there, as they always do when my family gets together.  My sister, who is an unemployed sonographer, began telling horror stories of her experiences working in hospitals (the one about the woman hiding a bag of Oreos under her sagging left breast was interesting, at least).  And then she began arguing with my mother and the screaming matches began apace.  My mother and my sister have a particularly toxic relationship that has been going on for years.  Sis calls my mother nearly every night to cry on her shoulder about her woes, and the conversation invariably deteriorates into an argument.  The next night, she does it again.  My mother refuses to stop taking my sister’s calls.  Mom says I don’t understand because I don’t have children of my own.  Perhaps this is a good thing.  This is one thing that I have no desire to understand.

My niece became more and more perturbed at the verbal violence that ensued between her mother and grandmother.  She is a sensitive sort and not as steeled to this passive-aggressive crap as the rest of us are.

It is difficult to adequately describe the extent of the vitriol that went on between my sister and my mother without providing examples:

#1

Sis: [complaining about the stuffiness in my parents’ home as we were lighting the candles on Mom’s birthday cake]  I’m dying!  I can’t stand it!  I’m gonna have bronchitis!

Mom: [yelling] So go outside if you can’t stand it!

#2

Sis:  I was really concerned about your memory!  Don’t mock me!

Mom: Don’t worry, I’ll let you know when I get Alzheimer’s.

Sis: You won’t know when you have Alzheimers!  You were reading to me and it sounded like bubrbubrbubbbb!

What else?  Oh, there was my mother’s description of how to choose a cucumber at the supermarket:  “It should be long.  You should squeeze it and it should be hard.  You want a stiff cucumber.”

And there was my sister’s description of her visit to Iceland.  She expressed regret that she was unable to locate the Phallus Museum in Reykjavik that she had heard so much about.  About the only species not represented, she read, was human beings.  She suggested that this should be remedied by her ex-husband offering his for a specimen, since he wasn’t using it anymore anyway.

This was in front of her children, mind you.

Ever the glutton for punishment, I texted my sister today to ask her how her new job was going.  I remembered that she was scheduled to start work at a Bay Area hospital on Wednesday.  There is no new job, she told me.  They checked her references and rescinded their offer.

Her previous job lasted all of two weeks.

It’s never her fault, mind you.  The fact that she is a loudmouth and can’t get along with anyone has nothing to do with it, either.

So I offered to show Sis how to apply for a job with state government, a solid job with great benefits and a good retirement package.  It doesn’t pay enough to meet her needs, she informed me, and anyway she’d be bored out of her skull.  She’d sooner continue being a nomad, running about the country as a traveling sonographer doing six- to eight-week stints in the Midwest.  Besides, she’s running after some guy in Santa Cruz now and doesn’t want him to get away.  If worst comes to worst, she says, she can always stay with my parents for a couple of months.  I reminded her that she didn’t last three days the last time she tried such a thing.  Inevitably, she makes my mother so upset that my father has no choice but to throw her out.

I guess you just can’t help some people and trying is an exercise in futility.

Oh, and now we’re all supposed to meet at my parents for Passover.

Do I want to subject myself to this after recent events?  Heck, no!  It’s always the same.  But here’s where the good old Jewish guilt creeps in.  How many more opportunities will I have to spend Passover with my parents?  What if this is my last chance?

But then I remember that I told my mother how grateful I was that Pastor Mom had gone out of her way to bake vegan hamantashen for me on Purim.  “Pretty soon you’ll have her converted,” was her reply, prior to making disparaging remarks about the fact that Pastor Mom used my sugar-free preserves instead of the traditional poppy seed filling.

Of course, I shared this with my wife, and no surprise that she about blew a gasket.

There is something, dear readers, called self-preservation.  So I think I’ll take a rain check on a family Passover this year.  They’ll just have to sing Khad Gadya without me.

Oh, how I look forward to breaking the news to my mother!  Maybe she’ll stop speaking to me for a few months again and we’ll all have some peace for a change.

Purim, After a Fashion

hamentaschen

This week, we will be celebrating Purim, the Jewish Feast of Lots.  Over the years, I have discovered that most people outside of the Jewish community have never heard of it.

The name of the holiday is from the Hebrew word pur, which refers to the casting of lots.  The story goes that this is what Persia’s wicked prime minister Haman did to determine the day on which all the Jews in the kingdom would be killed.  Our people were saved thanks to the bravery of Persia’s new queen and her uncle, Mordecai, events that are enshrined in the biblical Book of Esther.

Today, Purim is celebrated by reading the Book of Esther in synagogue, with all those in attendance banging on noisemakers and tooting horns every time the evil Haman is mentioned, in an attempt to blot out his name.  Often, kids dress up in costumes interpreting one of the characters in the story.  In some places, a Purim schpiel or play is put on, often filled with satirical songs using modern pop tunes with lyrics changed to refer to the story of Esther and Mordecai.

My favorite thing about Purim has always been hamenthaschen, the little jam-filled pastries that we traditionally eat.  The word hamentacshen is Yiddish for “Haman’s hat.”  It is said that Haman wore a three-cornered hat, mimicked by the triangle shaped pastry dough.  The most traditional filling is preserves made of poppy seeds, known as mohn.  It’s a rather strange taste, and much more popular are jam fillings of apricot, raspberry, prune, apples or cherries.  Back in New York, our local bakery used to make two kinds of hamentaschen dough.  One was soft and flaky, like a Danish or croissant, while the other (my favorite) was a hard cookie dough.  Alas, this year I shall enjoy hamantaschen in the same manner as I did last year — in memory only.  There are plenty of recipes for vegan hamantaschen around (like this one or this one), but if you don’t bake and there aren’t any available to buy because you live in rural northern California, you’re plum (or prune) out of luck.

Heck, there’s not even a synagogue close enough for me to go hear the Megillah being read.  But come Wednesday evening, you can be sure that I will be reading the Book of Esther aloud at home.  I’m not sure what I’ll use for a noisemaker when I come to Haman’s name and I may have to substitute Speculoos from Trader Joe’s for hamantaschen, but at least I will be able to mark the occasion in some fashion and fondly recall childhood days of gawking at the enormous mounds of Purim pastries in the display case of Pakula’s Bakery.

An Unexpected Kindness

hamantaschen
Passover may be nearly upon us, but I must tell a story about the wonderful gift I received for the Jewish holiday of Purim, which we celebrated last month.

Don’t feel badly if you’re unfamiliar with Purim. It is a relatively minor Jewish holiday that falls in the late winter or early spring in the lunar calendar month of Adar. Purim is the day we commemorate the historical events described in the Biblical Book of Esther. Specifically, we celebrate the saving of the Jewish people from annihilation by the decree of Haman during the reign of King Xerxes I of Persia in the 5th century B.C.

There are many customs and traditions associated with Purim, including the public reading of the Book of Esther, making charitable donations to the poor and exchanging mishloakh manot (gifts of food) among friends and neighbors.

Although Purim is traditionally a festive and merry holiday, this year, the week of Purim was not a happy occasion at all for me. For it was then that my wife’s grandmother, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, met her final decline and passed away. Grandma’s funeral was a very difficult time for all of us.

My elderly parents were unable to make the trip north to Olivehurst, but I spoke with them on the phone several times. When they related how they had attended synagogue on Purim, exchanged gifts of food and tasted the traditional hamantaschen, I felt a pang of yearning for days gone by. The closest synagogue to our remote desert community is one hundred miles away. Some years we drive out to Phoenix to attend a Purim service, but not this time.

I particularly missed the hamanthaschen.

Hamantaschen (literally “Haman’s hats” in Yiddish) are three-cornered pastries (generally made from cookie dough, although I’ve seen them in a flaky, Danish style as well) in which the center is filled with jam. The jam flavors vary (prune, apricot and raspberry are popular), but the traditional filling is preserves made from sweetened poppy seeds (which we called by its Yiddish name, mohn, when I was a kid).

In the suburbs of New York City, I remember how all of the local bakeries displayed hamantaschen in a variety of flavors for many weeks. My mouth watered. I could just taste them! If only I could get some now, I lamented.

The day after the funeral, we made the eleven-hour drive south to our home and my job in the desert.

I cannot describe my shock when, on my first day back at work, I walked into the break room and found, sitting prettily on our table, a plastic tub filled with hamantaschen. The Lord answers prayer!

How was this possible? I was sure that no one at work had ever heard of hamantashen, much less tasted one. I waited not a moment to indulge in the pastry treat I had been longing for. It was just as good as I remembered.

Of course, I had to find out whom to thank. Upon making inquiries, I learned that a retired employee, one whom I had met only two or three times, had stopped by and brought the treats while I was away.

I obtained the retiree’s phone number and texted her to express my appreciation for fulfilling my Purim wish. She texted back that it wasn’t she who brought them.

I made further inquiries. My coworkers insisted that yes, she was definitely the generous party, but perhaps she had forgottten. I texted her again. It turned out that she had visited twice and had indeed forgotten that she had brought the pastries on her first visit. She told me that she picked them up at Costco during a shopping trip to the Coachella Valley.

“I almost bought biscotti instead!” she exclaimed. She had no idea that the pastries she had purchased were called hamantacshen, nor that they are traditional for the holiday of Purim. I don’t think she had ever even heard of Purim.

And as amazed as I was to receive the very thing I had wished for, she was just as surprised to learn what her gift meant to me and how she had performed an unexpected kindness.