Nutty Purim treats

In the royal palace Esther is said to have subsisted on nuts and seeds to avoid eating nonkosher meat.

cookies 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
cookies 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Many tasty Purim customs evolved thanks to Queen Esther and to the story that she became a vegetarian when she married Ahasuerus. In the royal palace she is said to have subsisted on nuts and seeds to avoid eating nonkosher meat. Perhaps this is the reason behind the traditional poppy seed filling for hamentashen, although it may have originated in the variety of sweet poppy seed pastries popular in Russian and Eastern European pastry shops. Ashkenazi Jews popularized poppy seed fillings for their hamentashen, while Middle Eastern Jews favored a filling with a biblical, local fruit - dates. Chickpeas, beans, nuts and dried fruit also appear on Purim tables to celebrate Queen Esther's meat-free diet. Nuts and dried fruit are common ingredients in hamentashen, but in fact you could use beans too. Esther might have eaten delicate sweet chickpea cookies that are easy to find at Persian bakeries. Just the other day my husband and I ate a delicious three-cornered Chinese sweet filled with sweet red bean paste; "Chinese hamentashen" is our name for this dessert. Most Israelis will naturally find traditional cookies and pastries made with nuts and fruits more suitable for Purim than bean sweets. Here are two tasty treats to put in your Purim gift boxes. CHOCOLATE-NUT BARS Use pecans or walnuts to flavor these treats. With an extra-buttery dough made in a food processor and patted out by hand in a baking pan, these are very quick and easy bar cookies. Part of the dough is turned into a crumbly topping that is sprinkled over the chocolate-raspberry filling. You can keep these cookies up to three days in an airtight container at room temperature. Nut-Flavored Cookie Dough: 1 cup walnuts or pecans 3 egg yolks 1⁄2 cup sugar 1⁄4 tsp. salt 2 tsp. pure vanilla extract 2 tsp. grated lemon zest 225 gr. unsalted butter, cut in 16 cubes, cold 13⁄4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted Chocolate-Raspberry Filling: 1⁄2 cup raspberry or other preserves 165 gr. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, cut into very small chunks Nutty Crumble Topping: 2 Tbsp. sugar 1⁄4 cup all-purpose flour 1⁄4 cup pecans or walnuts, coarsely chopped Cookie Dough: Chop nuts fairly fine in a food processor. Transfer to a bowl. Combine egg yolks, sugar, salt, vanilla, lemon zest and butter in food processor. Mix using 10 on/off turns; then process continuously 5 seconds until nearly blended. Add flour and nuts process about 2 seconds. Scrape down and process about 3 seconds or until the dough begins to form sticky crumbs but does not come together in a ball. Put dough in a plastic bag or in plastic wrap, press together and shape in a rectangle. Refrigerate 1 hour. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 175º. Cut off 1⁄4 of disc of dough and reserve in refrigerator. Pat out remaining dough in an unbuttered 33- x 23-cm. baking pan. Chocolate-Raspberry Filling: Stir preserves. Using a rubber spatula, spread gently over dough, leaving a border of about 1 cm. Sprinkle chocolate evenly over preserves. Nutty Crumble Topping: Cut reserved dough in 10 pieces. Return to cleaned food processor and add sugar and flour. Process with a few on/off turns until sugar and flour are blended in but dough is still very crumbly. Crumble dough quickly between your fingers to separate any lumps and sprinkle crumbs evenly over chocolate. Sprinkle with chopped nuts. Bake about 33 minutes or until crumbs are firm and light brown. Cool in pan on a rack until lukewarm. Cut in 4- x 5-cm. bars in pan. Makes about 24 bars. SPICED DUTCH COCOA COOKIES Dutch-process cocoa, or cocoa processed with alkali, was a Dutch invention. This type of cocoa gives a rich color to these soft, cakelike cookies and blends with the spices to impart to them an intriguing, not-too-sweet flavor. The cookies are studded with chocolate chips, nuts and raisins and enriched with sour cream. You can keep them in a container up to 1 week at room temperature. 11⁄2 cups all-purpose flour 11⁄4 tsp. baking powder 1⁄4 tsp. baking soda 1⁄4 tsp. salt 11⁄2 tsp. ground cinnamon 1⁄8 tsp. ground cloves 1⁄2 tsp. ground ginger 1⁄3 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder 110 gr. unsalted butter 3⁄4 cup sugar 1 egg 1⁄2 cup sour cream 1 cup pecans or walnuts, coarsely chopped 1⁄2 cup raisins 1 cup chocolate chips Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 175º. Butter 2 baking sheets. Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and cocoa into a medium bowl. Cream butter in a medium or large bowl, add sugar and beat until smooth and fluffy. Add egg and beat until smooth. Using a wooden spoon, stir in 1⁄2 of flour mixture until blended. Stir in 1⁄2 of sour cream. Repeat with remaining flour mixture and remaining sour cream. Stir in nuts, raisins and chocolate pieces. Push batter from a teaspoon with a second teaspoon onto prepared sheets, using about 1 tablespoon batter for each cookie, mounding them high and spacing them about 4 cm. apart. Bake about 10 minutes or until just set. Using metal spatula, carefully transfer cookies to racks. Cool completely. Cool baking sheets and butter them. Repeat shaping and baking with remaining batter. Makes about 48 cookies. Tip: If baking cookies on 2 racks of oven, switch their positions halfway through baking time. Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning book Chocolate Sensations.