There’s a lot that changes when you move from one part of the country to another: geographical features, regional chain stores, and your neighbors’ accents (though I haven’t run into any of Bill Swerski’s Superfans quite yet). One thing I didn’t expect to change so drastically? The contents of the grocery stores.
Recently, over tea and Girl Scout cookies with a friend, I mentioned that I had been surprised to learn—at age eighteen—that Jews make up less than 2% of the U.S. population. Growing up next to Skokie, Illinois, which held the highest percentage of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel, I always assumed that at least half of America was Jewish. The same proportion of my middle-school classmates had thrown bar or bat mitzvahs, after all. He just laughed at me, but after stepping foot in the Skokie Jewel-Osco last weekend, it was obvious why I’d made that assumption. Huge posters hung from the ceiling near the entrance, wishing shoppers a happy Passover. An entire corner of the store had been set aside for Passover foods, and a permanent section held a kosher deli, bakery and dairy case. Growing up on the North Shore, it seemed as normal to anticipate Chanukah as it was Christmas.
It was a far cry from the grocery stores in the D.C. suburbs, which catered to a Salvadorean population; there was no type of dried chile you couldn’t find there. And there was no short supply of neighborhood Vietnamese markets, either. (On a related note, here’s a little public service announcement: if you’re into pho and you’ve never been to the Eden Center, you haven’t lived.)
Last weekend, I made one other Skokie supermarket find: hamantaschen, the little three-cornered cookies that are feasted on during Purim. It’s a day commemorating the victory of the ancient Persian empire’s Jewish people over the scheming courtier Haman. I’m not a practicing Jew, but my ethnic background (three-quarters Ashkenazi Jewish! Holler!) may have caused me to take a second look at these jam- and poppyseed-stuffed treats. This past Sunday was Purim, so it seemed to be the perfect time to get in touch with my heritage—especially since Jewel-Osco had been running a sale on adorable Purim cookie-boxes.
Hamantaschen can be tricky to make; the twisted edges of the cookies are prone to unraveling in the oven, which can then lead to an unfortunate jamsplosion. With careful preparation and some resting time in the freezer, though, the collateral damage can be minimized. And these treats are certainly worth all the trouble. On Sunday morning, as I prepared the dough and fillings to the background noise of a steady rain, the kitchen became filled with a citrusy glow. Orange and lemon zest were folded into the pliable cream cheese dough; poppyseeds and raisins mingled with hot milk, sugar, orange zest and vanilla on the stovetop. Apricot and raspberry jams sat in the pantry, too, waiting to be added to the mix. For those few hours, I felt a little bit more Jewish, and it was a very delicious feeling indeed.
Adapted from Mostly Foodstuffs
Makes about 18 cookies
– 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
– 4 oz. cream cheese, softened
– 3 Tbsp. granulated sugar, plus more for sprinkling
– 1/2 tsp. vanilla
– 1/4 tsp. salt
– zest of half an orange
– zest of half a lemon
– 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
– 1 egg
– fruit jams of your choice (I used apricot and raspberry) and/or poppyseed filling (I halved this recipe from Smitten Kitchen)
1) Beat the cream cheese and butter together until light and fluffy. Mix in the 3 Tbsp. sugar, vanilla, salt, and citrus zests until well-combined. Stir in the flour until just incorporated, being careful not to overmix. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let chill in the refrigerator for 1-2 hours.
2) Remove dough from fridge. With a rolling pin, roll out the dough to a thickness of 1/8″ to 1/4″. Using a 2 1/2″ or 3″ circular cookie cutter, cut out as many rounds from the dough as possible, combining and re-rolling the scraps of dough as needed.
3) In a small bowl, beat the egg with 1 tsp. of water to use as an egg wash.
4) For each round of dough, place approximately 1 tsp. of your desired filling in the center, and brush the edges lightly with the egg wash. Fold the round into a triangle by pulling the sides of the dough toward the center (the filling will peek through slightly), taking care to seal the edges completely.
5) Chill all prepared hamataschen in the freezer for at least an hour.
6) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Arrange the chilled hamantaschen on two cookie sheets lined with parchment paper, then brush with remaining egg wash and sprinkle lightly with sugar. Bake for 20-30 minutes, until hamantaschen are golden brown.