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Holidays

A Feast of Desserts

March 19, 1997|JUDY ZEIDLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Our family gets together to celebrate all Jewish holidays, but Purim seems to be everyone's favorite. How can you not love a holiday that tells you to dress up, forget your troubles, enjoy delicious food and drink lots of wine?

Our daughter and daughter-in-law spend days before Purim making costumes for our grandchildren, who dress up like the characters in the Purim play. The girls want to be Queen Esther, and the boys identify with brave Mordecai and King Ahasuerus. Of course, no one wants to be the evil Haman, who plotted against the Jews.

Before leaving for the Purim festival, the kids parade around the neighborhood eating the hamantaschen they helped bake.

In the evening, the family always has dinner at our house. They arrive still dressed in their costumes and ready to act the parts of the biblical characters in the Purim story. Everyone selects a grogher (Purim noisemaker) from our collection to twirl each time Haman's name is mentioned.

According to tradition, Queen Esther became a vegetarian when she moved into the king's palace. She ate primarily seeds and legumes to avoid eating non-kosher food. In her honor, we observe this custom at dinner by serving big bowls of vegetable, bean and barley soup, along with thick loaves of hot crusty bread and a salad buffet. And in keeping with the festive spirit of Purim, we serve a hearty red wine and grape juice.

Jewish cuisine has contributed some wonderful dessert recipes to American cooking, and Purim especially has inspired some favorites. By far the best-known Purim dessert is hamantaschen.

These triangular pastries are named after either the hat of Haman, his pockets or his ears. Whatever you think they look like, they are delicious. (Like many Purim foods, hamantaschen contain poppyseeds. The reason is probably that the Yiddish word for poppyseed, mon, reminded people of the second syllable of "Haman.")

Every family has its favorite hamantaschen recipe. Usually, it is made from a sugar cookie dough that is rolled out and filled with a poppy seed, prune or apricot filling, then shaped into a triangle. Along with hamantaschen, I like to serve three other less-traditional but festive desserts: poppy seed baklava, poppy seed-honey thins and a double orange-glazed bundt cake.

POPPY SEED BAKLAVA

Alexandra Poer, the pastry chef at Dickenson-West Restaurant in Pasadena, has created this filo-and-dried-fruit dessert based on the Middle Eastern baklava. It was so delicious I asked her for the recipe and adapted it as a Purim dessert by using poppy seeds instead of fruit.

1/2 cup sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 cup toasted pistachio nuts, finely chopped

1 cup melted butter

10 sheets of filo pastry, cut in half crosswise

1 (12-1/2 ounce) can poppy seed filling

2 tablespoons strawberry preserves

Mix together sugar, cinnamon and pistachio nuts in small bowl. Set aside.

Brush bottom of baking sheet with melted butter. Place 1 half-sheet filo on bottom of baking sheet. Brush its entire surface lightly with butter. Lay second half-sheet on top and butter it lightly. Repeat procedure until you've used 10 half-sheets of filo.

Mix poppy seed filling with preserves. Spread filling evenly over prepared filo sheets. Place 1 half-sheet of remaining filo on top of filling and brush entire surface lightly with butter as before. Repeat procedure with remaining filo and butter. Brush top filo sheet with butter and sprinkle evenly with sugar-pistachio mixture.

Using small sharp knife, score top of baklava lengthwise with parallel lines, 2 inches apart, through 2 top sheets of filo. Repeat same pattern horizontally to form square shapes.

Bake at 350 degrees 30 minutes. Raise temperature to 425 degrees and bake until sugar becomes lightly caramelized, 5 to 10 minutes. (Note: Watch carefully because it browns quickly.) Remove baklava from oven. With sharp knife, cut into squares following pattern marked on filo. Serve warm or room temperature.

12 baklava. Each baklava:

305 calories; 89 mg sodium; 21 mg cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 43 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 2.58 gram fiber.

POPPY SEED HAMANTASCHEN

1/4 pound butter or margarine, softened

1/2 cup sugar

3 eggs

Peel of 1 orange, grated

2 cups flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon poppy seeds

3 (8-ounce) cans poppy seed filling

Beat butter and sugar in electric mixer until well blended. Beat in 2 eggs and orange peel, blending thoroughly. Add flour, baking powder, salt and poppy seeds and blend until dough is smooth.

Transfer to floured board and divide dough into 3 or 4 portions for easier handling. Flatten each portion with palm of hand and roll out 1/4-inch thick.

With scalloped or plain cookie cutter, cut into 2 1/2-inch rounds. Place 1 heaping teaspoon filling in center of each round. Bring edges of dough toward center to form triangle, leaving bit of filling visible in center. Pinch edges to seal.

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