The Sweetest Day

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Chronicle Books will publish Judy Zeidler's newest cookbook, "Master Chefs Cook Kosher," later this year

What makes Purim so special?

Maybe it's the heroic story of Queen Esther and the tradition of children dressing up in costume and re-creating the Purim story. Or maybe it's the sweet cookies her story inspired.

According to legend, Queen Esther was a vegetarian who ate mostly fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds to avoid eating nonkosher foods. In her honor, many families include beans, chickpeas, dried fruits, nuts and poppy seeds in their Purim menus. This is why many families finish their Purim dinners with poppy seed pastries, especially the traditional hamantaschen.

My first hamantaschen recipe was my mother's. Instead of being made from the traditional yeast pastry found in most Jewish bakeries, hers was made from cookie dough. And though she filled hamantaschen with poppy seeds, she also made some each year with a filling of homemade strawberry jam.

Over the years, however, I developed my own way with hamantaschen. One year, I added chocolate and poppy seeds to the cookie dough and filled it with a mixture of melted chocolate and chopped nuts. I've also combined fresh vegetables with nuts and raisins to make hamantaschen fillings, including a sweet eggplant marmalade. And once I made a 12-inch, family-sized hamantasch from a yeasted dough.

This year I am making a Sephardic-style Purim delicacy--flaky filo hamantaschen filled with poppy seeds and sweetened with honey syrup, similar to baklava. I also developed a Purim linzer torte filled with prune jam (lekvar) and served with ice cream.

Purim seed cookies--the thinnest, crispest cookies imaginable--are adapted from a recipe given to me by a friend, Bernie Bubman, who brought it back from France during a recent cooking-school trip.

You can prepare the dough and fillings for these recipes in advance, store them in the refrigerator or freezer, and bake them when convenient.

Don't forget the traditional Purim custom of taking gifts of food (shalach manos) to neighbors. I always bake extra cookies, pack them in colorful boxes and baskets, and give them to family and friends.

PURIM LINZER TORTE

Flour

2 cups finely ground almonds

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1 cup (2 sticks) butter or margarine, cut in small pieces

2 egg yolks

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

1 (17-ounce) jar lekvar (prune jam)

1 egg white, slightly beaten

Blend 1 cup flour, almonds, 1/2 cup sugar, cinnamon and butter with electric mixer until fine crumbs form. Add egg yolks and almond extract and mix well. Place on pastry board and knead, adding additional flour as needed, until no longer sticky.

Flour hands and fingertips and press 2/3 dough over bottom and up sides of ungreased 11-inch tart pan with scalloped edges and removable bottom. Spread evenly with lekvar.

Pipe remaining dough from pastry bag fitted with 1/8- to 1/4-inch tip across filling in 10 to 12 alternating strips 1 inch apart in lattice design. Or alternately transfer remaining dough to floured board and knead into ball. Chill 30 minutes for easier handling. Pinch off 10 to 12 egg-size pieces of dough and roll between well-floured palms to make strips about 1/4 inch in diameter and 8 to 11 inches long. Place rolled strips on floured baking sheet and chill until firm, about 30 minutes.

Lightly press ends of dough strips to pastry edge to seal. Brush with egg white and sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Bake at 325 degrees on lower rack of oven until golden brown, about 1 hour. Place on rack and cool before removing ring.

12 servings. Each serving:

411 calories; 14 mg sodium; 87 mg cholesterol; 19 grams fat; 56 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 0.81 gram fiber.

FILO HAMANTASCHEN

SUGAR SYRUP

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup water

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon honey

HAMANTASCHEN

1 cup (2 sticks) butter or margarine, melted

1/4 cup oil

1 (1-pound) package filo dough

2 cups ground walnuts, almonds or filberts

2 (8-ounce) cans poppy seed filling

SUGAR SYRUP

Bring sugar, water and lemon juice to boil over medium-high heat and stir until sugar dissolves. Cook at slow boil 5 minutes. Stir in honey. Keep warm.

HAMANTASCHEN

Combine butter and oil in saucepan.

Place sheets of filo dough on damp towel on counter and keep covered with wax paper while working with individual filo sheets.

Put 1 sheet filo dough on another piece of wax paper and cut lengthwise into 4 equal strips. Brush with butter mixture. Sprinkle with ground nuts. Place 1 teaspoon poppy seed filling 1 inch from 1 narrow edge. Fold 1 corner over filling. Fold filo, flag fashion, making triangle, then fold angle over again and again until whole strip is folded. Repeat with remaining filo and filling.

Place each hamantasch on foil-lined buttered baking sheets and brush with melted butter.

Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown and crisp, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from oven and spoon sugar syrup over each hamantasch. Cool on rack.

About 5 dozen. Each hamantasch:

131 calories; 42 mg sodium; 8 mg cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 15 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.89 gram fiber.

PURIM SEED COOKIES (LOW-FAT COOKING)

5 tablespoons butter

1/3 cup sugar

2 tablespoons corn syrup

2 tablespoons milk

1/2 cup sesame seeds

2 tablespoons poppy seeds

2 tablespoons millet

These cookies spread out as they cook, so a small amount of dough goes further than you might think. Bake as many as you like, cover the remaining dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate up to one week. Millet is available in some supermarkets and health food stores.

Cook butter, sugar, corn syrup and milk in medium skillet over medium heat and stir with wooden spoon until butter is melted and all ingredients are thoroughly combined. Add sesame seeds, poppy seeds and millet and mix well. Transfer to glass bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate or freeze until firm, about 30 minutes.

Shape batter into 1-inch rounds and place 2 inches apart on foil-lined baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees until browned evenly, about 10 minutes. Watch closely because cookies brown quickly. Cool. Peel off foil.

About 5 dozen cookies. Each cookie:

25 calories; 1 mg sodium; 3 mg cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.09 gram fiber.

CHOCOLATE HAMANTASCHEN

CARAMEL PECAN FILLING

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup water

2 cups toasted chopped pecans

7 tablespoons butter or margarine

1/2 cup milk or nondairy creamer

1/4 cup honey

CHOCOLATE FILLING

1/2 cup cocoa powder

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup milk, whipping cream or coffee

1 cup chopped toasted walnuts

HAMANTASCHEN

3 cups flour

1/2 cup finely ground almonds

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup (2 sticks) butter or margarine

3 tablespoons hot water

2 tablespoons cocoa powder

1 egg

1 egg white

CARAMEL PECAN FILLING

Bring sugar and water to boil in heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring with wooden spoon until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and add pecans, butter and milk. Return to heat, stirring constantly, and simmer until thick, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in honey.

Transfer to oven-proof glass bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until set, about 1 hour.

CHOCOLATE FILLING

Combine cocoa, sugar, milk and walnuts in bowl and blend thoroughly.

HAMANTASCHEN

Combine flour, almonds, baking powder, salt and sugar. Blend in butter with electric mixer until mixture resembles very fine crumbs.

Blend water and cocoa in small bowl and beat in egg. Add to flour mixture and beat until mixture begins to form dough. Do not over-mix.

Transfer to floured board and knead into ball. Chill 30 minutes for easier handling. Divide into 6 or 7 portions. Flatten each with palm of hands and roll out 1/4 inch thick. Cut into 3 1/2-inch rounds with scalloped cookie cutter. Place 1 teaspoon Caramel Pecan Filling or Chocolate Filling in center of each round. Fold edges of dough toward center to form triangle, leaving bit of filling visible in center. Pinch edges to seal.

Place on lightly greased foil-lined baking sheet and brush with egg white. Bake at 350 degrees until firm, about 20 minutes. Transfer to racks to cool.

About 5 dozen. Each hamantasch:

127 calories; 25 mg sodium; 16 mg cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.27 gram fiber.

QUEEN ESTHER'S TOAST

1 tablespoon water

1 tablespoon flour

8 (1/2-inch-thick) slices challah or white bread

1 cup lekvar (prune jam)

4 eggs

1/2 cup milk

2 tablespoons butter, plus extra if needed

Powdered sugar

In Israel, Queen Esther's toast, which is similar to French toast, is served during the Purim holiday. If you like jelly doughnuts, you will love this version, which is like a sandwich filled with prune jam (lekvar). Serve them for breakfast with maple syrup or for dessert with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Substitute strawberry or raspberry jam or chunks of semisweet chocolate for the prune filling. This recipe will appear in Judy Zeidler's forthcoming cookbook "30 Minute Kosher Cooking" (William Morrow, 1999).

Mix water and flour to make paste. Remove crust from bread and cut each slice in half diagonally to make triangles.

Place 1 to 2 tablespoons lekvar in center of 8 triangles and brush edges with flour-water paste. Cover with remaining 8 triangles, pressing edges firmly to seal.

Whisk together eggs and milk in shallow bowl. Dip each triangle in egg mixture, gently turning to moisten both sides.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in large nonstick skillet over medium heat and saute sandwiches on both sides until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Add additional butter if needed. To serve, sprinkle with powdered sugar.

8 triangles. Each triangle:

250 calories; 171 mg sodium; 116 mg cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 42 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 0.45 gram fiber.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Background

Purim, which is celebrated March 12 this year, is the most festive of all Jewish holidays. According to the story, Haman, prime minister to Persia's King Ahasuerus, wanted to kill all the Jews because Mordecai, a Jew, refused to prostrate himself before him.

After getting the king to agree, Haman drew lots to determine when the Jews would be killed. (Purim comes from the Hebrew word pur, meaning lot.) But he was thwarted by Ahasuerus' queen, the beautiful Esther, who, unbeknown to Haman and Ahasuerus, was Jewish. She and Mordecai, her uncle, succeeded in changing the king's mind, and Haman was hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai.

Purim, preceded by a day of fasting, is celebrated with gift exchanges, a reading from the Book of Esther, called the megillah, and the eating of sweets made with risen flour. Children often dress in costume and reenact the story of Esther and Haman.

* Melissa Haid platters from Zero Minus Plus, Santa Monica.

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