Tonight is Purim, when we dress up in costume, make fun of dire villains and dull kings, cheer modest heroes and most of all praise a heroic woman, Esther, who risked everything to change the king’s addled mind and spare the Jews of the Persian empire.
In previous years, I’ve done the Hamantaschen thing–low carb, medium carb, all homemade, no pasty white horrors, praise of Joan Nathan’s basic recipe from her first cookbook…lots of non-Dayglo, non-candy fillings from figs, prunes, apricots, and so on…
Today I’m probably not going to get a chance to bake anything or even cook very much, because I decided to take a leaf out of Esther’s Megillah this year and read part of the fifth chapter, splitting it with my (much-wiser-than-Ahashverosh) husband. So about three days ago I decided I was going to go for it and learn the Purim cantillation (trope marks for chanting) system. Which takes more nerve than usual, because it’s tricky and somewhat deceptive, like the entire story. And it’s been almost two years, since my daughter’s bat mitzvah, since I’ve even chanted Torah. And, like I said, three days ago. Not brilliant.
Luckily there’s Youtube. And a number of synagogues post recordings by their hazzanim (cantors, male and female) for the cantillation marks and for the readings as a whole. Only there are so many versions for Purim! It’s a late holiday in our history, after a lot of us were living in the Persian empire, and the different melodies reflect our already dispersed community. One interesting version was by a Moroccan hazzan–his system actually had a couple of trope mark tunes that are nearly the same as ours for the regular weekly Torah and Haftarah readings. Maybe those are the oldest ones that everyone has more or less in common? Cool!
So–our daughter is chanting a few verses with her youth group for Chapter 7 tonight, and the director is bringing kosher Persian food from a restaurant on the West Side of LA, where the largest Iranian (and Iranian Jewish) community outside of Iran resides. I wish I were a kid tonight, for sure.
Still, in honor of the occasion and the roots, I did get around to making poppyseed filling for the hamantaschen I’ll make tomorrow.
I went to my local Armenian greengrocer yesterday morning for vegetables and picked up a new bag of poppyseeds, hoping they were fresh, really fresh enough to use. My previous latest bag in the freezer has puffed up suspiciously with air–suggests it’s no good and starting to release gases even though I didn’t open it before freezing, dammit.
I tasted the new poppyseeds raw–okay. But rancid sometimes only shows up when you toast them, so I poured a spoonful in a metal pan and swirled them around on the stove until the aroma came up. Then I test tasted those once they were cool enough. Still good, still lucky.
Poppyseed filling is quite an elaborate affair in my trusty 1984 spiralbound edition of Joan Nathan’s The Jewish Holiday Kitchen. Figs, apricot jam, brandy, egg whites? Oy. Ten or more ingredients. A production, and kind of expensive considering how many younger people don’t like poppyseed filling. Including my daughter, I’m sad to report (see below)…
But I do, which is the important thing, and my supermarket no longer carries those cans of Solo in the Jewish Foods section. So I decided it was fine to simplify. And while I was at it, to add a hidden Persian-style element or so for the occasion of Purim.
So this filling looks black…but holds the essence of early spring and orange blossom within it. And if anyone doubts that it’s completely effective in its ability to transform, at least temporarily, I should add that my daughter, who insisted she tells me every year she hates poppyseed filling with a hot hate, and that I never listen, took a tiny bite and looked surprised and pleased…at least for about five seconds, until the bitter toastiness of the poppyseeds came through like a bagel at rush hour, poor kid, and she pulled a Tom Hanks (from Big, the caviar scene). She even did the wiping-the-tongue-desperately-with-a-napkin bit. And no, I’m not sure I should be telling you this. Five seconds delay, though. From her, I’m gonna have to count that as a win. And it was pretty funny, another point to Purim.
Poppyseed Filling With a Persian Twist
- 6 oz (172 g; it was the size of bag they sold) very fresh poppyseeds
- 6 oz. sugar (again, 172 g, but anyway, the same amount as the poppyseeds)
- 1/4 c (60 ml) water
- juice of a lemon
- orange part of the rind of an (organic, washed) orange or tangerine (in this case), grated or if that’s too much of a pain, shredded with a knife and ground in a coffee grinder or food processor with an additional spoonful or so of sugar
- pinch each of ground cloves and cardamom (if you have it)
- very tiny shake or grinding or pinch of nutmeg
- up to another 1/2 c. water (see instructions and PS note at the bottom)
- 1/2 t. vanilla
- 1 t. orange blossom water (yes, this was my idea of the Persian twist, and it’s good, though probably it should have been rosewater for authenticity–I just wasn’t ready for that)
Taste-test the poppyseeds raw, then toast a spoonful in a dry steel saucepan on the stovetop until you start to smell their aroma. Cool and taste-test again before using to make sure there’s no funky, off, or rancid flavor to them.
Then grind them a few pulses in a coffee grinder (in two batches) or in a food processor or blender.
In the steel saucepan, combine the sugar and water with a squeeze of lemon and let the sugar wet down all the way before turning on the burner to medium. Bring just to a slow simmer without stirring–the slurry should start to go clear as the sugar dissolves.
Add the ground poppyseeds and stir gently. It should be a thick dark-gray grainy mass. Keep the pot on a low heat so it bubbles gently but doesn’t spit for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally but not hard or you might cause the syrup to seize. As it cooks add the lemon juice, spices, grated orange or tangerine rind and stir in, then [see the PS below] test-taste–if the seeds are still kind of hard, add 1/4 c. water, let simmer with a lid partway on for a few minutes, stir and do it again here until the seeds soften a bit and the raw-poppy edge is off. Add the vanilla and just before taking it off the heat, stir in the orange blossom water. Take a tiny bit and let it cool enough to taste and adjust any flavorings, then take off the heat and pour into a container to cool to room temperature. It will thicken further, especially after you put it in the fridge.
B’te’avon, bon appétit, and Chag HaPurim Same’ach!
PS…AKA, next-day “Do-over,” kind of. Because I wouldn’t want anyone to try this, be happy for a few minutes, and then kind of hate the result when they took a second taste. If it needs a fix, it needs a fix, and I felt this did…
The next day I took it out of the fridge for a taste test before deciding if I really wanted to bake…it was pretty grainy and the top was crusted sugar. I stirred it and realized the seeds were pretty hard still and kind of bitter–not rancid, just really raw-poppyseed. Very strong. I think I didn’t have enough liquid in the recipe compared with Joan Nathan’s, even without all the jams and things. She had “juice of an orange” in there somewhere next to the juice of a lemon, and I’d assumed it was mostly for flavor, but probably the extra liquid helped cook the poppyseeds too (hence, the “up to another 1/2 c. water” bit I’ve just added to the ingredients list).
Never one to look away from a challenge (oh yeah? I hear someone muttering sarcastically in the background)…I decided to reheat the filling in the microwave with some extra water and a lid for a minute or so and see if that would induce the poppy seeds to absorb some of the water and soften up a bit. I stirred in about 1/4 c. of water, which immediately went cloudy-white, kept stirring, and the filling thinned almost to pancake batter consistency. Put a lid on and heated 2-3 minutes in the microwave, let sit a few minutes to absorb. It was better as well as thicker, and a little of the poppyseed bitter edge was out as well. So I did it again with another 1/4 c. water, heated 2 minutes or so, let it sit again and it thickened back up but the seeds were definitely softer and a little more brown than black (although I admit it’s pretty hard to tell).
In any case, I’d do this the first time around while it’s still cooking on the stovetop. Add the extra water in bits after you’ve added the poppyseeds and spices, and before adding vanilla or orange blossom water (so you don’t evaporate them off). Expect to cook it down from about pancake batter looseness until it becomes very thick, a grainy paste. Then taste a little and feel to see if the seeds have softened and mellowed in flavor–add more water and cook longer or else do the microwave thing instead if you’re impatient, but I think it might only take maybe as much as 15-20 minutes on the stove rather than the 5 minutes I’d expected.
Safety: The only thing about heating syrups in the microwave (this is basically a syrup with seeds) is that they can get very, very hot. So 1. keep an eye on it while it’s heating and be ready to stop the microwave if it starts to boil over (this didn’t, either time, but you just don’t know) and 2. don’t use a plastic microwave container because the mixture could melt or scar plastics. Proper microwaveable ceramic or old-style borosilicate pyrex is ok if you still have some from 20 years ago or can find it in Europe and tote it home. (NOTE: “new Pyrex” that clanks and is made outside the US is made of soda lime glass and is not very heat-stable–see right sidebar warning).