On the Jewish food scene: The good cookie by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Confession time: I can live without hamantashen. Yes, I tend to scarf down as many of them on Purim as anyone else, but they are far from my favorite cookie. One problem is that there is usually too much dough and too little filling for my taste. I do prefer those with fruit fillings, rather than the traditional poppy one. By the way, chocolate hamantashen is not hamantashen; it is some other sort of chocolate cookie. (While I’m on the subject of foods that have the wrong name, that goes for chocolate-chip challah, too. It’s a type of bread, but not challah. And to be really controversial, while I like blueberry bread, there is no such thing as a blueberry bagel; a bagel by definition is savory.) Sorry for that digression, but some things just need to be said. I think the problem with hamentashen is that they aren’t sweet enough – even with lots of filling – to feel like a real cookie and, if I’m going to have the calories and sugar of a cookie, I want it to taste like a real cookie.

So, you might imagine my surprise at how popular hamantashen is in my chaplaincy work. We used to have Jewish holiday parties at Broome Developmental Center and the co-worker (and friend) who helped me organize the parties said that she kept getting phone calls asking if this was the holiday with “the good cookie.” In subsequent years, she featured a picture of a hamentashen on the poster and e-mail about the celebration so that everyone would know that, yes, this is the one with “the good cookie.” That meant there was rarely a problem getting people – Jewish and non-Jewish – to attend.

Now that the Center is closed to residents, we no longer have the holiday parties. Instead, I bring hamantashen to the day treatments and the houses I visit. The cookies are so popular with one staff member that he asks me about them all year long. It’s gotten to be such a joke that when I saw him once in the grocery store, I couldn’t resist teasing him, saying, “Sorry, no cookies.” I’ve seen people letting their friends know when the hamantashen are available so they eat one before they disappear. By the way, I do not make the cookies. For most of the years we held parties, the kitchen was able to acquire them. When that changed, I did try my hand at them one year, but that was a complete fiasco. I quickly turned to a local baker who made them instead. Then the next year, the parents of the Temple Concord Religious School began selling hamentashen as a fund-raiser and I’ve been distributing their cookies ever since. (By the way, I think when they first thought about the fund-raiser, they were envisioning people asking for a couple of dozen cookies at the most. Then came my order – each year, I usually request 10 or 12 dozen.) 

Writing this column did have its own reward. While working on a draft, I was reminded of the one time when I really appreciated hamantashen. That’s because they were made specially for me. This took place at Temple Beth El of Endicott, so it must been either the late 1970s or sometime during the 1980s. I was on one of my strict diets and couldn’t eat anything made with white flour, only food that used pure whole wheat. That meant I never ate any of the cookies or sweets offered during onegs or holiday gatherings. One year, my mother motioned me to come into the synagogue kitchen. There she had a plate of homemade, whole-wheat hamantashen. The filling was fruit-juice sweetened jam. Those were my favorite hamantashen ever because they contained an additional ingredient: love.