For our grandmothers, Purim didn’t mean matching mishloach manot to the theme of the family Purim costumes. Or a basket filled with Israeli wafers, chocolates and candy, mini bottles of grape juice and the ubiquitous grogger all wrapped in cellophane and tied with a big, plastic bow.
For our grandmothers, Purim meant baking recipes handed down through generations.
The rabbinic dictum to give gifts of food (mishloach manot) to friends and family, meant that across the Middle East and Mediterranean, our grandmothers would spend days baking sweet and savory delicacies.
What better way to honor the joy of Purim and remember that we were saved from the decree to kill all the Jews than to bake yummy treats that evoke the defeat of Haman?
Purim has a special resonance for Persian Jews, who bake a rose-water flavored cookie sprinkled with poppy seeds or sesame seeds to represent Haman’s fleas. They also make a flour-based halvah flavored with cardamom, saffron and rosewater.
Bulgarian Jews serve a lemon vermicelli pasta dish to represent Haman’s hair.
The Rhodesli Jews have the Ladino tradition of baking biscocchos, bourekas and fulares, a bread-based roll holding a hardboiled egg with crisscross strips of dough over the egg representing either the caged Haman or the hanging of Haman.
The Jewish communities of North Africa make a sweet fried dough called fijeulas dipped in a honey syrup, and a special Purim bread roll, similar to fulares, with a whole egg cradled in the bread, called Ojos de Haman (eyes of Haman), with two strips of dough on top forming an X. Rachel grew up eating these as a child in Casablanca. Today, she makes them for family and friends.
The Jews of Babylon baked many treats for Purim. Sharon’s grandmother was renowned for her delicious Ba’ba Ta’Mar, a savory, crispy, yeast cookie with a soft, creamy, date filling. Other Iraqi treats included baklava, almond macaroons and malfouf, rosewater flavored almond cigars made from filo pastry. The family also made sambusak — baked dough pockets filled with cheese — and fried dough pockets filled with spiced chickpeas.
OJOS DE HAMAN (NORTH AFRICAN PURIM BREAD)
12 eggs, plus 1 beaten
7 cups flour, divided (all purpose or bread flour)
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons yeast
2 1/2 cups warm water
1/2 cup oil
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons of anise seed, (fennel seeds)
Boil 12 eggs, discard water and set aside. Peel when cool and dry.
In large bowl, mix 2 cups flour, sugar, yeast and water and let sit 5 to 10 minutes until frothy.
When mix is frothy, add 5 cups flour, oil, salt and fennel seeds in bowl of Kitchen Aid or knead by hand. Cover with plastic and a dish towel and let rise for one hour.
Beat one egg for egg wash.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Punch down and divide dough, separating it into equal-sized balls the size of your palm. Take a ball, flatten and cut into strips that will hold egg in place.
Using a finger, poke hole in the center of dough ball as if making a doughnut, place egg in center and place on baking sheet.
Fold two strips of dough into an “X” atop egg. Use beaten egg as glue to secure strips. If they slide, hold in place with toothpicks.
With a knife or scissors, cut around edge of bun on each side and pinch together to form a flower or sun. Brush top with egg wash.
Bake for 20-25 minutes.
Optional: For dark crust, mix one egg with one yolk and 1 tablespoon honey.
1 packet dry yeast
1 3/4 cups water, divided
6 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons nigella seeds
2 cups pitted dates
1/4 cup oil
3 tablespoons water
3 eggs, beaten
1 cup sesame seeds
To prepare dough, dissolve yeast and sugar in 3/4 cup water. Let sit until frothy.
When frothy, mix with remaining ingredients and add 1 cup water. If dough is too dry, add a bit more water.
Knead until soft.
Let rise for one hour.
To prepare filling, in saucepan, combine dates and vegetable oil and cook over very low heat. Stir for about five minutes until the date mixture is soft. Add water and stir until it becomes a smooth paste. Set aside to cool.
Grease hands with some oil and form balls about the size of a teaspoon. Once dough is in ball form, set aside.
To assemble, roll out dough as thinly as possible.
With a drinking cup or a cookie cutter, cut circles, gather scraps of dough and roll out again to maximize dough.
Beat eggs in bowl, set aside.
Pour sesame seeds into bowl.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Place dough disc into palm of hand, place dollop of date mixture in center, pinch dough closed. Dip ball into the egg, then roll into sesame seeds.
Place it on floured surface. With small rolling pin, flatten ball. Make a few small indentations in center of cookie, then place on cookie sheet. Repeat until dough and date mixture are gone.
Bake until golden, approximately 7 to 10 minutes.
Makes 36 cookies.
Sharon Gomperts and Rachel Emquies Sheff, known as the Sephardic Spice Girls, have known each other since high school. Sheff’s family roots are Spanish Moroccan. Gomperts’ family hails from Baghdad and El Azair, Iraq. They collaborated on the SEC Food Group and community cooking classes. Visit them Facebook at SEC FOOD.