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Originally published Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 4:00 PM

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Modern flavors transform a Purim tradition

In Tel Aviv, hamantashen cookies are modernized, with fillings like chocolate cream; in Paris, Jewish bakers stick to tradition. Recipes: Hamantashen with Poppy Seed Filling, and Chocolate Chip Pastry Cream

The New York Times

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TEL AVIV, Israel — Customers at Lehamim Bakery in Tel Aviv were already eagerly reaching for a dozen varieties of delicate hamantashen two weeks ago. Israelis have become crazy about the tricorner pastry that is as closely linked to Purim, which begins on Saturday evening, as matzos are to Passover.

Fillings of poppy seeds, nuts and dried fruits used to be as exciting as these Eastern European sweets got. But at Lehamim, marzipan, sour apple, dates with sweet red wine and cinnamon, halvah, and chocolate chip cream pop out of their tops. Other bakeries have such unconventional fillings as amaretto, meringue with cream, marshmallows, strawberries and orange jam, and pistachio with rosewater.

In part this playfulness can be explained by Israel's Mardi Gras-like fervor for Purim, for which flour and fillings are used up before being removed from the home before Passover starts next month.

Another reason is the globalization of Israeli food, which inspires this generation of Israeli bakers to compete for ways to tweak tradition for a more sophisticated clientele.

"I have never seen customers like in Israel," said Uri Scheft, the baker and an owner of Lehamim, a kosher bakery with the most modern baking equipment from Europe. "I listen to what they want, always new things."

"Our customers are always asking us for different kinds of hamantashen," he added. The bakery uses butter in its dough, unusual for a kosher bakery, and makes about a dozen types, like one with spelt flour filled with sugar-free preserves, and savory quichelike versions stuffed with potatoes and sesame seeds or feta cheese and beets. His triangles are also tinier than usual.

As Scheft, 48, showed me around his immaculate bakery, young American, Ethiopian, Israeli, Arab and Russian bakers cut discs of the thin sheet-rolled dough by hand. They topped them with a dollop of the assorted fillings before pinching the dough into triangles with an opening on the top, so that some of the filling remained visible.

Like so many Israelis in the past 20 or 30 years, Scheft studied abroad, in his case at bakeries in France and Denmark.

"I learned short pastry dough with almonds inside in France," he said. "It is tastier than a typical dough."

In France, though, few Central and Eastern European bakeries remain, as almost half of Paris's Jews are Sephardic.

"I put out only a few hamantashen the weeks before Purim," said Florence Kahn, owner of a celebrated Eastern European bakery in the Marais that bears her name. "I like to whet my customers' appetites so that they remember that the holiday is coming."

Parisians gingerly picked her heartier, more traditional hamantashen. Unlike their counterparts in Tel Aviv, Kahn and other Eastern European Jewish bakers don't stray from tradition, remaining loyal to the golden standard of poppy seeds, nuts and dried fruit fillings like prune and apricot.

Purim, which celebrates the biblical story of the Jews' deliverance from a plot to kill them by Haman, minister to the Persian king, is a special time when people drink, dance and play jokes. Gifts of food called shalah manot are distributed, which include fruit, cookies and, of course, hamantashen.

"We start to hear about a pastry called montash in the 16th century in Germany," said Shmil Holland, an Israeli historian and cook whose book "Schmaltz" (Modan Publishing), about Eastern European food and its history, is due out in Hebrew before Passover. "The meaning in German was mohn — poppy seeds — and tash — pocket."

At a dinner at his home, Holland, 53, whose popular dairy restaurant in Jerusalem, Shmil at the Lab, just closed, talked with great passion about his favorite cookie.

"When the Jews fled Germany for Eastern Europe in the late Middle Ages," he said, "they took the poppy seed pastry with them but added the Yiddish prefix ha."

The word then became hamantash, which sounded like "Haman's pocket." (In the United States it's known as Haman's hat.)

"That's the way this pastry became the typical sweet for Purim," he added, "and the poppy seeds the ultimate stuffing."

But in Israel they are called, in Hebrew, oznei Haman, and in France, oreilles d'Aman — Haman's ears. Supposedly, Holland said, Haman was so crestfallen when he was forced to confess his plot to the king that his ears were folded, resembling triangles.

In 17th-century Bohemia and Czechoslovakia, Holland said, a prune filling, which was sometimes cooked for days, was added. Sometimes the flaky dough that Holland learned from his Polish grandmother was swapped for supple yeast dough and filled with a savory buckwheat filling with onions.

Tradition can have a tremendous pull, despite the appeal of the latest trends.

"Even with all the different fillings we make," Scheft said, "the most popular is still poppy seed, perhaps from nostalgia."

HAMANTASHEN WITH POPPY SEED FILLING

Adapted from "Schmaltz" (Modan Publishing) by Shmil Holland

Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, plus at least 1 hour refrigeration

Yield: About 30 cookies

For the dough:

1 cup confectioners' sugar

2 large egg yolks

8 ounces unsalted butter at room temperature, in small pieces

Grated zest of 1 lemon

2 ¼ cups all-purpose unbleached flour

Dash of salt

1 large egg, beaten, for the glaze

For poppy seed filling:

1 cup milk

½ cup sugar

Grated zest of ½ orange

1 cup poppy seeds

1/3 cup raisins

Juice of ½ lemon

½ tablespoon brandy

½ tablespoon orange liqueur

½ tablespoon butter

½ tablespoon vanilla extract.

1. Put the confectioners' sugar and the egg yolks in a food processor and blend. Add butter and lemon zest and process to blend. Gradually add the flour and the salt, pulsing until it forms a ball. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for an hour or overnight.

2. Meanwhile, prepare the filling: Put milk, sugar and orange zest in a saucepan over medium heat. Grind poppy seeds in coffee grinder. When mixture is warm, turn heat to low and add poppy seeds and raisins. Cook until the seeds absorb the milk and the mixture is thick, about 15 minutes. Add the lemon juice, brandy, orange liqueur and butter. Stir and cook for 2 minutes more. Stir in the vanilla extract, remove from the heat and cool.

3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 pastry sheets with parchment paper.

4. Roll out the dough to ¼-inch thickness and use a cookie cutter or glass to cut 3-inch circles. Put a heaping teaspoon of the filling in the center of each, and press up the sides to form triangles. Brush the tops with beaten egg.

5. Bake until golden and dough is delicately firm all the way through, about 15 minutes. If trays are on different racks, switch them after about 10 minutes.

Note: You can skip Step 2 and use the recipe for chocolate chip cream filling.

CHOCOLATE CHIP PASTRY CREAM

Adapted from Lehamim Bakery, Tel Aviv

Time: 1 hour

Yield: About 2 cups of filling

3 egg yolks

¼ cup sugar

1 ¼ tablespoons cornstarch

2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder

¾ cup milk

½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise

2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped

2 ½ ounces semisweet chocolate chips.

1. In a bowl, beat the egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch and cocoa powder until smooth.

2. Pour the milk into a small saucepan with the vanilla bean. Over medium heat, bring to a simmer, then remove from heat and remove the vanilla bean. Scrape the inside of the bean and add to the pan.

3. While whisking vigorously, pour 1/3 of the milk into the yolk mixture, then pour back into the saucepan. Continue to whisk constantly while simmering over low heat until the mixture bubbles and thickens into a creamy pudding consistency.

4. Remove from heat, add the bittersweet chocolate and whisk until the chocolate has melted and the cream is smooth. Pour into a clean bowl and cover with plastic wrap, placed directly on the cream. Refrigerate until cool, at least 30 minutes. Fold in the chocolate chips.

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