IN THE GRAIN:Childhood hamentashen

Growing up in a Jewish community predominantly of Lithuanian and Russian descent in the Johannesburg suburb of Yeoville meant that on Purim you ate hamentashen made from yeast dough.

Hamentashen (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
What is your earliest childhood memory of Purim? Was it your first “grogger,” that raucous contraption-on-a-handle that you let rip every time the name of Haman (the Purim villain) was mentioned in the synagogue? Or perhaps your first Queen Esther costume? My earliest childhood Purim memory is waking up to a nutty, yeasty smell gently wafting from a cloth-covered ceramic bowl in our kitchen, permeating our entire apartment.
Growing up in a Jewish community predominantly of Lithuanian and Russian descent in the Johannesburg suburb of Yeoville meant that on Purim you ate hamentashen made from yeast dough. Dough was prepared the night before and allowed to rise slowly overnight. Early on Purim morning, my mother would roll the dough out into rounds, fill each with a healthy dollop of mohn (minced poppy seeds boiled in milk and honey) or cream cheese filling, and then gather the ends together, forming a triangle shape supposedly resembling Haman’s hat, or as some say – his ears! These were then baked and if you thought the nutty yeast smell was good...
My mother routinely baked a ton of extras because a large proportion were consumed straight out of the old gas oven by an expectant brood with their tongues hanging out and then you needed more for mishloah manot (gifts exchanged between neighbors) and for the Purim feast later in the day. The origin of her recipe is uncertain. We know for sure that my mother inherited it from my late Bobba, who was a renowned baker, but it could have a longer history than that. My mother was no slouch of a baker either; she spent most of my childhood working as a caterer.
Baking yeast hamentashen is a laborious job. You have to prepare the dough the night before and the handwork of shaping and filling each one takes a long time. For the more faint-hearted, there was Tiffany’s Bakery around the corner, where one could enjoy fresh commercially baked fare – but my brothers and I were privileged to soak up the aura from start to finish.
Although my childhood delight every Purim was unmistakable, we did to some extent take my mother’s yeast hamentashen for granted – it was just something that one did on Purim. Only many years later when I made aliya on my own did I really begin to fully appreciate this delicacy. I remember my first Purim in Beersheba, searching in vain for what I knew as hamentashen, only to be disappointed with a poor imitation – tiny cookie-dough triangles barely filled with strawberry jam. The culture shock of making aliya is multifaceted – having to work Sundays, learning a new language, etc., but on a scale of 1 to 10, missing the hamentashen of my youth ranked way up there – around 8.
The next wake-up call was when I got married and decided that I couldn’t take it any more and had to make my mother’s hamentashen at home. I was an avid home baker since age 13 and I reckoned that this was a no-brainer. My mother willingly provided the recipe, but only after many long hours of arduous slog did I finally begin to fully appreciate my mother’s dedication to her family. Following that harried attempt, our married life was only peppered with the few isolated occasions where I mustered up the courage to repeat that huge undertaking. This would probably have continued for the remainder of my days had we not decided to open our own commercial bakery. One of the fundamental decisions we made was that, despite the labor intensity, we were going to take the plunge and reproduce my childhood yeast hamentashen.
This turned out to be a revelation. The native Israelis had no clue what these large, soft hamentashen were and needless to say did not like them (everyone to their own childhood memories, I guess). Most Americans had also never seen large yeast hamentashen before, although a few vaguely recalled that their grandmother had once made something similar. What was most astounding, however, was discovering that it was not only I who had a hidden love for yeast hamentashen, but that multitudes of olim from different backgrounds shared my hankering. This caused quite a stir at the time and I briefly came under the focus of the media – radio and the press – who were enthralled by the story.
This even proliferated over the ocean and I received numerous letters from far-flung reaches of the globe from the yeast hamentashen-starved masses. Some 10 years later, the hubbub has died down somewhat, but I still enjoy receiving emails and calls from long-lost relatives with nostalgic memories similar to my own.
So after that buildup, I have finally decided to publicize my Bobba’s secret recipe for yeast hamentashen.
I must warn you, however, that the virtue is not necessarily in the ingredient mix, which is pretty simple, but in the dedication and love that go into preparing this delicious Purim specialty.
Use and enjoy. I know it would give my mother and late Bobba a lot of pleasure knowing that they were somehow instrumental in giving birth to an entire new generation of yeast hamentashen addicts.
Happy Purim.
The writer, a master baker originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, lives in Karnei Shomron with his wife Sheryl and four children. He is CEO of the Saidel Artisan Baking Institute (, which specializes in training and education in the field of organic, healthy, artisan baking and the inventor of Rambam Bread. He also lectures and works as a consultant in the fields of cereal chemistry, health, nutrition and authentic Jewish bread.
Yeast hamentashen
(Makes 12 hamentashen)
4½ cups flour
2 tsp. salt
1 small pinch instant dry yeast (approx ¹⁄8 tsp.)
½ cup sugar
½ cup cold water
½ cup cold milk (soy milk for parve)
2 eggs (size L)
100 gr. butter (margarine for parve)
Mix and knead by hand for 10 minutes. Cover bowl with damp cloth and leave in a cool spot in the kitchen to rise overnight (10-12 hours)
Mohn (poppy seed) filling
100 gr. minced/ground poppy seeds
1 cup milk (soy milk for parve)
2 Tbsp. butter/margarine
¼ cup honey
2 Tbsp. sugar
Mix ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer while stirring continuously to prevent the bottom from burning, until mixture is thick. Let cool.
Assembly and baking
Punch down and roll out dough until approx. ½-cm. thick.
Using an empty can (10-cm. diameter), cut out 12 round discs (from the remnants, re-roll and cut the dough). Fill the center of each disc with 1 Tbsp. of filling.
Gather the sides of the disc of dough up and over the filling, forming a triangular shape, and crimp the seams tightly, totally enclosing the filling within. Place on a baking pan and leave to rise for 45 to 60 minutes. Baste with egg wash and bake for 15 minutes at 180º.