Hamantaschen are cookies shaped like triangles and filled with jam or poppyseeds — or, sometimes, other stuff, like pizza or marzipan sprinkles, depending on your adherence to tradition and your tolerance for fun. Traditionally, you eat them at Purim, a celebration of the time Ester foiled Haman’s plot to exterminate the Jews. They are deeply symbolic, although there is some question about what, exactly, they are supposed to symbolize. I was taught they are triangles to represent the hat that fell off Haman’s head when he was hanged, but I have since learned they can also represent Haman’s bribe-stuffed pockets and/or Haman’s ears, an origin story that in fact refers to a different type of Haman-specific cookie from the Sephardic world. Alternatively, they can be a fertility symbol. This is a more upbeat interpretation, I think; still, I am partial to the hats.
They have gotten an unusual amount of attention lately, in part because Purim is tomorrow, but mostly because they are at the center of a brief online debate having to do with — you guessed it! — an old Bon Appétit article. A story originally called “How to Make Actually Good Hamantaschen” suggested that the majority of hamantaschen were “dry and sandy” and “left your mouth coated with a weird film.” On Twitter, people debated whether the original article was offensive (and, as part of its “Archive Repair Project,” BA has since revised the framing), or if it is in fact offensive to be offended, and who should get to write what kind of recipes, and how, and whether it matters if you attended a lot of bat mitzvahs in 1992, and then the whole situation inspired a (new) Bret Stephens op-ed about the perils of wokeness vis-à-vis cookies.
Since then, it has been hard to concentrate, not because of the controversy but because of what the controversy revealed: There are a startling number of people who do not like hamantaschen.
How, I kept thinking, is it possible that people do not like hamantaschen? Until this moment, I had thought hamantaschen were like Oprah, or the color blue, or videos of bears soaking in residential hot tubs; they might not be your favorite, I guess, but we all agree they are a valuable contribution to the culture.
But we do not, apparently, agree. It has come to my attention that many people do not like hamantaschen. “I think we need to be honest with ourselves that hamantaschen are often very bad and if gentiles are willing to address this problem i think we should accept the help,” tweeted one hamantaschen critic. “Hamentaschen are an intensely average cookie at their best, horribly dry and inedible at worst,” argued another. “Most Jews,” Stephens opined in the Times, “would probably be grateful for an ‘actually good’ hamantasch.”
Reeling, I tried to explain the situation to a friend who generally prides himself on having no culinary preferences. “People on the internet are saying hamantaschen are bad!” I cried. “Well,” he said, solemnly, “they kind of are.”
Obviously, I was aware that hamantaschen had long been a subject of debate — specifically, The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate, an annual event that originated at the University of Chicago, during which scholars rigorously unpack the relative merits — moral, atomic, economic, literary, metaphysical — of jam-stuffed triangles versus potato pancakes. The fact that the hamantasch is the perennial underdog has always struck me less as an indictment of the cookie, which again can be very good, than as testament to the enduring power of fried potatoes.
But if not liking hamantaschen is an established, acceptable opinion — and it is — why didn’t anybody tell me? Were there other things people also did not like? I wondered. Reality was beginning to seem unsettlingly subjective.
I tried to explain the situation to my mother: Was she aware that some people do not like hamantaschen? “No,” she said simply, adding that my father had in fact just bought some that morning. “Okay,” I said, “but did we eat an unusual quantity of hamantaschen during my childhood in the Detroit suburbs?” Again, her answer was no. “I mean, we ate them all year, so in that sense, if you live where you can’t get them except on the holiday, you wouldn’t eat them that often.” I could not argue with this kind of logic. I also began to worry I needed a source I was not related to.
I called Jessica Quinn, the baking half of the Eastern European pop-up Dacha, to ask if she knew anything about people not liking hamantaschen. She was similarly confused. “I love them. I’ve always loved them. My whole family, we’re a hamantaschen family,” she told me. If anything, she said she’d seen a rise in pro-hamantaschen content lately. “I was actually surprised that there’s a smear campaign against hamantaschen, because I feel like they’re having a moment right now.”
At Zingerman’s Bakehouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan, managing partner Amy Emberling told me the bakery is, at this very moment, baking thousands of them. “I really don’t think that people are buying them and throwing them out just because they have to buy them for Purim,” she said. “People are excited to have them! Ann Arbor doesn’t have that many Jewish people, and so a lot of people just buy them because they love them and because they think they’re a really good cookie.” (“If we really want to cause a fight among the Jewish community,” she proposes, “let’s talk about black-and-white cookies, because I think they are terrible.”)
A good hamantaschen is a question of ratios. You need a substantial amount of filling — “an abundance of filling!” Quinn advises — but you also need to keep the cookie structurally sound. The dough, meanwhile, should be buttery and not too sweet. As traditional cookies go, they are “on the softer end of things,” Emberling reflects, but “they definitely have a sort of crumbliness to them — not falling-apart-dry crumbly but a little bit shortbread-y. Not a shortbread, but on the shorter end.”
Plenty of hamantaschen do not have butter, though. Instead, in keeping with kosher dietary laws, they use shortening, and this is often cited as the crux of the hamantaschen crisis: “If people feel like they don’t have any flavor,” suggests Emberling, “I think it’s probably because of that.” (Butter, it is true, is good.) And yet, as Quinn is quick to point out, shortening-based hamantaschen can also be delicious, as long as the flavor comes from somewhere. “Some of our favorite hamantaschen were from Zomick’s, which I know were pareve. And you know what? That was still a great cookie!”
If they had encountered hamantaschen haters, they could not remember it. But Breads Bakery owner Gadi Peleg knew. “Absolutely,” he told me, when I asked if he had encountered anti-hamantaschen sentiments. “It’s not surprising at all, as hamantaschen has been made with little love by many places for too long.” For years — for decades! — too many hamantaschen have been made with too much concern for shelf-life and too little concern for greatness, when the only goal of hamantaschen should be to make it great: “Like your mom made them at home, but better, with even better ingredients.”
Many people, for example, do not like the traditional poppy-seed filling, which is understandable, Peleg says. It is an art. To develop the Breads interpretation, he “went everywhere in Manhattan, called every supplier of poppy on the planet,” he recalls. “We had like 20 different poppies at the bakery, we tried five different grinders, including no grinder at all. We read every technique and tip. Because if not treated correctly, poppy gets oxidized very quickly and becomes bitter. I find that aftertaste really off-putting. So we did like 50 iterations of poppy — ground, not ground, boiled in milk, we tried every possible way — until we got it.” (The solution hinged on a “crazy” German coffee grinder.)
He is not only an ambassador for hamantaschen but a hamantaschen poet, and, as such, we will give Peleg the final word in this debate: “When you put that much attention and love into it, they’re actually the most perfect little pockets of wonderfulness,” he says, gushing, much like seeds gush out of a hamantaschen. “There’s something about that little bit of crunch in the dough and the little bit of sort of beautiful gooeyness of the inside that just makes for a magic little bite.”