Photo Gallery | Volunteers make Purim hamentashen at Knesset Israel
Jews in Berkshire County, and around the world, are getting ready to celebrate Purim. The spring festival commemorates Queen Esther and the deliverance of the Jews from their enemies, including a man named Haman, in Persia some 2,400 years ago. Queen Esther, through her intelligence and bravery, helped prevent the Jews from being massacred by their enemies.
Purim is celebrated this year on March 24.
As part of its Purim celebration, Knesset Israel Synagogue in Pittsfield will continue its 40-year tradition of baking and delivering cookies, called Hamantashen, a traditional Purim treat. The three-cornered shape of the cookies represents the tri-cornered hat Haman is believed to have worn.
Hamantashen are traditionally filled with fruit fillings, such as raspberry, prune, poppy seed or apricot, said congregant Cindy Helitzer, who along with Susan Gordon, owner of Bagels Too in Pittsfield and a Knesset Israel member, has coordinated the event for the past 10 years.
The annual baking project has evolved from women in the congregation and its Sisterhood baking hamantashen for other congregants in the mid-1970s, to today's large-scale event in Knesset Israel's kitchen, where organized teams of volunteers bake hamantashen over many weekends and sell them to congregants, family and friends, Helitzer said.
The cookie dough was hand-mixed until 2007, when Gordon and a group of volunteers began making all the dough in Gordon's store, where large vats and mixers were available to use. That year, the volunteers produced 2,443 cookies, up from the 1,525 that were hand-mixed the year before.
Once the dough is made, it is brought to Knesset Israel for storage until baking.
"This year, we had 30 volunteers, who made 6,565 cookies," Helitzer said. "There were three or four volunteers rolling the dough, others cutting out the rounds, some scooping in the filling and a group pinching the dough [into a triangle shape]."
She added the baking was done in nine twice-weekly, three-hour sessions starting in January and culminating at the end of February. Each session yielded 500 to 800 cookies.
In recent years, the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires has teamed up with Knesset Israel to make 1,000 hamantashen at the synagogue's kitchen for "Joe's Project," which provides hamantashen to homebound Jewish elders in Berkshire County and southern Vermont. It is named in memory of Joe Madison, a Jewish baker who started the community-wide project for the house-bound.
The remaining 5,550 cookies are bought, for $12 a dozen, by Knesset Israel congregants to give to other congregants, for themselves or to send in the mail to loved ones outside the area for an additional fee. A letter is sent to the recipient, informing them of the giver or givers.
"So far, we've raised $9,000 to benefit Knesset Israel," Helitzer said. "It's [making hamantashen] a project we do with our families anyway. We just turned it into a bigger project that helps the synagogue."
Here is Knesset Israel's recipe for Hamantashen, if you would like to try and make them at home.
3 to 4 cups flour
1 scant cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon grated orange rind
1 scant cup canola oil
1/3 cup orange juice
Fruit filling of your choice
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix/sift the dry ingredients together, using 3 1/4 cups of the 3 to 4 cups of flour.
Mix all the wet ingredients together in a separate bowl.
Add all of the wet ingredients in-to the dry ingredients at the same time. (If you mix the wet ingredients in one at a time, the dough will be too crumbly)
Separate handfuls of dough to roll on a lightly floured board. Use the remaining 3/4 cup flour if needed to keep the board lightly floured. Roll the dough fairly thin, about - to 1/4 -inch thick. Use a round cookie cutter or a glass (about 3 to 3 ½-inch diameter) to cut out circles of dough.
Use a small melon baller or teaspoon, drop a circle of fruit filling into the center of the dough. Do not overfill. Pinch the dough into a triangle shape — place your fingers under the circle of dough — pinch up the top into a triangle point, then lift the bottom side of the dough straight up and pinch the corners into a triangle shape. Pinch the corners closed.
Place on cookie sheet lined with parchment paper on it. It is not necessary to grease the pan or parchment paper. Bake 15 to 20 minutes until golden brown.
Makes about 100 hamantashen (depends on size you make).