Unlike Hanukka, when latkes and sufganiyot battle it out for the all-important title of symbolic holiday food, Purim belongs exclusively to hamantaschen. And while this pastry is elusive throughout the rest of the year, it can be found in stores weeks after the almond trees bloom around Jerusalem, proving to be more prevalent in Jerusalem eateries than its fried Hanukka rival. Almost every culture seems to have its own variation on filled treats, and many other delicacies refer to events or characters in the Purim story. A Middle Eastern pastry, ghorayebah, literally means "the queen's bracelets" - referring to Esther, of course, and a Sephardi noodle dish involving noodles, lemon, salt and pepper was named kaveyos di Haman - Haman's hair. Some communities would eat legumes, symbolic of Esther's dedication to her Judaism while in the court of the non-Jewish king Ahasuerus. According to legend, the queen would only eat vegetarian offerings there to avoid anything that might be non-kosher. And the rope Haman was hanged on is commemorated by some Russian Ashkenazim in the keylitsch, a huge, elaborately braided halla. While hamantaschen are perhaps the most well-known of the stuffed Purim pastries, they exist alongside Persian makhbouz (filled with cheese, dates or almonds), meat-filled kreplach dumplings and folares, a Sephardi concoction in which pastry dough is wrapped around a decorated hard-boiled egg, frequently forming the shape of a central character of the Purim story. The three-cornered pastry, whose Yiddish name means "Haman's pockets," is of uncertain origin. Its Hebrew name, oznei Haman, refers to the villain's allegedly triangular ears. Others explain the shape by the allegation that Persian elites in the court would wear three-cornered hats - a fact that led my brother's George Washington-esque tricorn hat (purchased of course at Mt. Vernon) to double for annual duty as part of his Haman costume. Some experts make a connection between the Yiddish term for "poppy pockets" (mohntaschen) and the name of the holiday's bad guy. From there, the jump to Haman's Pockets (hamantaschen) is a word game of Purim-esque proportions. No matter the etymology, the holiday treats were mentioned as early as the 11th century, far before potato latkes, which necessitated the discovery of the Americas for their main ingredient. When I think of hamantaschen, I recall the brick-heavy delicacies piled on the trays prepared by my Virginia synagogue's sisterhood. They were hard and thick-skinned, with scalloped edges around the filling, and filled with either prune, poppy or apricot. I realized I was becoming a grown-up when I discovered that prune had surpassed apricot as my favorite flavor. In Jerusalem, I have since discovered there are also some other standard flavors: Halva, chocolate spread, poppy, date and occasionally nut. And if our reviewers were any indication, the paucity of jammy, fruity fillings beyond the date is a serious problem. Actually, the most overwhelming feature of the mass hamantaschen taste-test was the complete lack of participant enthusiasm for the product at hand. Even those who claimed to "love hamantaschen much more than sufganiyot" seemed to reel back from the table piled high with brown cookies filled with mostly brown fillings. The hamantasch seems, in some ways, doomed to failure on the mass-appeal circuit. Controversy reigns as to the ideal specs for the final products. A team of Eastern-European partisans pooh-poohed anything other than yeast-dough products, while others believed that the dough should most closely resemble a rolled sugar cookie. (Incidentally, for the yeast-partisans, don't despair. If yeasty hamantaschen are synonymous with Purim for you, try the bakeries on Rehov Strauss.) With such a wide difference among even the most basic qualifications, somebody was guaranteed to be disappointed with each offering, and probably rightly so. The overwhelming statement that could be made about this year's hamantaschen ranking was that no hamantasch was a clearly superior product. With judges ranking on a scale of 1-10, not a single one even scored an 8, let alone a perfect 10. The vast majority of the products sampled landed squarely in the 5.5-7.5 range - edible, perhaps inoffensive, but nothing to write home about. After reviewing the results, I would offer the following recommendations to the bakers:
Almost to a tart, they were all quite sweet, and occasionally toxically so. Please, for the sake of our spleens, lay off the sweet!
Please pay attention to esthetics. I, too, know how to make them so that the corners come unfastened, and the whole business looks like a lopsided circle with a dab of something in the middle. But it doesn't mean I want to buy them that way.
There was almost no quality control as to levels of doneness. Some were suffering from class two burns, and others looked as painfully pale as a northern European on an Eilat beach.
Our judges (and there were a lot of them) really want jelly or fruity fillings as well as better-quality chocolate filling. I may stand alone as the only person desperately missing prune.
That said, here are the rankings, and a few choice reviews:
1) Caf Hillel
2) Gagou de Paris
4) Ugat Chen
5) Mister Zol
6) Ne'eman (Independent on Emek Refaim)
8) Lechem Tushiya
10) Au Regal
11) English Cake
12) Ne'eman minis
14) Ne'eman (Independent - sugar free)
15) Ne'eman - full size
The outside was not appealing enough to attract the attention of our reviewers. But after examination, the halva filling (which the optimistic reviewer thought was peanut butter) received very high marks, although the cookie around it did not. NIS 30/kg.
Jaffa Road 68, across from the Clal Building.
I should begin by pointing out that this shuk favorite was one of the best deals for the price. Reviewers enjoyed the cookie crust, which was described as "tasty" and "pleasing" and cited for its buttery flavor. But the Ugat Chen offering was repeatedly graded down for a poor CTF (cookie-to-filling) ratio. NIS 20/kg.
Rehov Mahaneh Yehuda 20, Mahaneh Yehuda; Rehov Hashikama 2.
Gagou de Paris
This is the second competition in a row in which this city center bakery won serious accolades for its seasonal offering. Although one reviewer said that they found the date-and-nut version too sweet, the hamantaschen received solid moderate-to-high marks for filling and cookie. NIS 35/kg.
King George 14.
There was such a great differential between the pre-packaged mini-hamantaschen and the individual regular-sized variety that we were forced to review them separately. Nobody liked or particularly wanted to approach the big ones, which looked tough and overcooked - and lived up to expectations. They were described as "not good" and "dry" and criticized for stingy amounts of filling. Their pre-packaged, diminutive brethren fared much better. Although they were pale and even undercooked, the overall appearance was attractive. They received moderate marks overall, although they were sweeter than average and a bit low on the CTF ratio. The date filling was less popular than the chocolate. Pre-packaged NIS 24.90/box, individuals NIS 42/kg.
11 locations throughout the city.
For the second time in a row for Lechem Tushiya products, the looks could be off-putting. And, to echo my comments on their sufganiyot - this is the place to go if you want to pass off a bakery product as homemade. The hamantaschen were all, well, open. The corners had opened, and occasionally completely flattened, something I consider a failure in my own hamantaschen-making attempts. Nevertheless, looks can be deceiving, and the reviewers overwhelmingly found the buttery pastry satisfactory or better. Some wished to see more filling, but all agreed that the filling was generally good. NIS 58/kg.
Rehov Aza 25, Rehavia; Ben-Yehuda 21, Center of town.
This was yet another solidly moderate candidate. The halva version has a pleasant esthetic "reverse" effect, where the dough is chocolate-colored, which nicely highlights the whitish dot of halva in the center. Reviewers agreed that the bakery was skimping on the filling, and said that despite the pretty effect, their chocolate filling was superior to their halva. NIS 38/kg.
37 Emek Refaim, German Colony; 2 Rehov Hata'asiya, Talpiot.
This is one case where I have to respectfully disagree with the reviewers who gave these hamantaschen very low marks. Yes, the filling was bad and exceptionally rubbery, but on the other hand I found it to be one of the few hamantaschen that was not too sweet. Even the most negative reviewers said that the product looked good, and one taster said that the pastry was "fine for people who have no other options." NIS 22/300 gr. box.
I don't know what is going on with these guys. The reviewers were completely and resoundingly unimpressed, and said that they couldn't taste the filling and ranked the cookie as poor-to-moderate. They did, however, note that the outside appearance was pleasant. NIS 20/box.
42 Rehov Hapalmah, Katamon.
Mister Zol, in addition to the standard flavors, also claimed to offer some unusual filling choices, including coconut and black-and-white, which seems to be a chocolate-halva swirl. When we went to the supermarket, only half of the alleged flavors were available with the coconut nowhere to be seen. There was a vast difference among the quality of the hamantaschen, with the contents of the pre-packaged boxes ranging from pale to suspiciously burned-looking. A psychological effect seems to have occurred among the reviewers, in which the ones who believed the filling to be halva were not enthusiastic, whereas those who identified the filling as chocolate gave the cookie moderate-to-high marks. Most of the reviewers were more satisfied with the filling quality than the cookie, and also noted that the CTF ratio was too high. While a third of the reviewers gave the black-and-whites excellent all-around marks, others made comments like "it looks like a real hat, not like a hamantaschen - totally weird!" NIS 23.95/kg.
Several locations throughout the city.
Once again, Pe'er found itself among the top-ranked offerings, and received high marks for almost everything except for quantity of filling. The chocolate filling was considered to be the best, so in any case the basement bakery in the German Colony did not disappoint. NIS 30/kg.
19 Rehov Ha'egoz, Mahaneh Yehuda; 5 Rehov Hamagid, German Colony; 33 Rehov Hafetz Haim.
A solid middle-of-the-road hamantaschen that was not overly offensive, but also not exactly excellent. For some reason, Angel's technique seems to be reminiscent of the closed, filled cookies, without the traditional "peephole" allowing the eater advance warning of flavor. Reviewers were put off by this design choice, describing it as "discouraging" and upon eating the cookie, realized that the filling was practically as nonexistent inside the cookie as on the outside. The cookie was tough, extremely crunchy and quite sweet, but one reviewer who made it through the hard shell said that the blueberry filling was excellent. NIS 39/kg.
11 locations throughout the city.
Despite our usual lack of success with chain-bakery products, Hillel's hamantaschen were an exception. The outside appearance was pleasant, with a thinner cookie than most and a nice, consistent shape and color. Reviewers found the texture of the cookie good, and said that they found the dough buttery, but a bit too sweet. Of the choices, the poppy scored the lowest, followed by chocolate, and crowned by what appeared to be cinnamon-date filling which was delicious, although like the crust, a bit too sweet. This was the all-around favorite, but was not clearly excellent, merely quite good. NIS 18/220 gr.
Jerusalem Mall, Rehov Hillel 8, multiple branches throughout Jerusalem.
The judges were harsher in their comments than in the overall rankings for this bakery, whose only Jerusalem-area shop is in Mevaseret Zion. One described it as "tasteless, absolutely tasteless" and another found the "outside appearance bland, cookie stiff and CTF cheap." They were the only hamanstaschen of the 15 that left grease spots on the paper where they were sitting. They did however look nice, and those who sampled the chocolate said that the flavor of the filling was very good, even if the quantity was poor. Still, they ranked this hamantasch solidly in the middle, leading one to believe that the overall effect wasn't as bad as the grease stains might indicate. NIS 75/kg.
Harel Mall, Mevaseret Zion.
English Cake's reviewers were almost unanimous in complimenting the chain's fillings, although they gave very low marks to the texture of the cookie itself, which they described as "too hard" and "a bit crunchy and dryish." The chocolate filling was the best of all the possible flavors, and was actually quite tasty with a good CTF ratio. They seem to have quality control down to a pat, with the hamantaschen turning out consistently sized and attractive, neither too burnt nor undercooked. NIS 35/kg.
Several locations throughout city.