Mentioning the name of Haman elicits boos and rowdy noise-making during the Jewish holiday of Purim. But the festival, celebrated this year on March 17, prompts raves, as well, mostly for the food and the excuse to make merry. The wicked and corrupt advisor to Persia’s King Ahasuerus, as told in Jewish scriptures, Haman failed in his plan to eradicate the Jews. But everybody wins with Haman’s namesake, the hamantaschen, a delectable triangular-shaped cookie filled with fruit jam (usually prune) or poppy seed. The Yiddish name means the pocket of Haman; in Hebrew, the slightly more daring name is oznei Haman (ears of Haman). The best of these now line the shelves of Brookline bakeries.
While the hamantaschen may not be covered with almonds, truffles, golden raisins and all the other foods that define delicacy, the cookies are far from mundane. The laws of permutations and combinations can still apply to hamantaschen, which have two possible shells—either the common hard-cookie shell or the soft, Danish-like pastry covering—and several options for fillings, from a variety of fruit jams to poppy seed. These days, hamantaschen seem to have taken on a new motto: dream of something and the center can hold it.
For a holiday that celebrates survival, the hamantaschen appear too simple a sweet. The outside is not more exciting than shortbread, and the recipe calls for ingredients that can be found around the house: flour, eggs, sugar, baking soda and butter. But let nouveau cuisine invent zany combinations; tradition looms along Brookline’s Harvard Street, where the bakeries continue the age-old tradition of shaping Haman’s malice into scrumptious cookies.
Kupel’s Bake and Bagel is a bagelry cum bakery, with both areas having the same amount of emphasis. To the far left corner sit the myriad of cream cheese tubs, lox, vegetable, walnut and many other flavors. Crates filled with bagels stand behind the counter. The glass display case contains colorful pastries galore; stacks of giant M&M cookies sit besides trays of apple strudel and chocolate danishes. And, yes, there are hamantaschen. Almost two shelves are devoted to the treat, with flavors including prune, cherry, strawberry, raspberry, apricot and more ($0.65 for small). The hamantaschen shell is crisp and sweet, with a hint of lemon. The fruit fillings do not boast a puree of actual fruit, although the final result is nonetheless appetizing.
Aside from the hamantaschen, other baked goodies entice the senses. Rugalach is another well-known Jewish pastry favorite. Kupel’s offers cinnamon, cinnamon-raisin, raisin, chocolate and raspberry in addition to many other flavors, each sold by weight. The rugalach was disappointing, with the exception of the chocolate variety. Those alone had the complexity of flavor and texture, as crunchy crust encased alternating layers of soft dough and creamy chocolate.
Further down the street sits Pastry Land, a bakery that is more of a pastry wonderland than its name suggests. Unlike Kupel’s, Pastry Land has a more limited selection, and the quantities are fewer. But Marcus, the bakery’s owner, is skilled in his craft. Pastry Land offers nothing less than the finest and tastiest baked goods. Everything is baked on premises and guaranteed Kosher. Glazed poppy seed rolls glisten under the soft lighting and the cookies radiate freshness.
Selecting the hamantaschen ensures a satisfying pick. The Pastry Land makes the best hamantaschen on Harvard Street. And knowing so, people saunter in and out of the store, walking away with boxes brimming with hamantaschen for friends, family and themselves. The bakery makes hamantaschen with three different types of fillings: apricot, prune and poppy seed. The crisp and crumbly cookie crust melts in the mouth. The jams are rich, and made of pureed fruit.
My companions and I had avoided eating a prune-filled hamantaschen at Kupel’s, but somehow one managed to sneak its way onto our plate at Pastry Land. We stared at the unwanted hamantaschen and finally dove in. Although we had declared earlier that we do not like prunes, we ate the hamantaschen, only to be surprised—the wrinkled, dried fruit has a sweet and subtle flavor that blends perfectly with the cookie shell.
“In Israel, hamantaschen have two fillings. We use either prunes or dates,” explained Galit, a native from Israel who works behind the counter at Pastry Land. Our mouths watered at the mention of date-filled hamantaschen.
While hamantaschen are not to be missed, they are by no means the highlight of the bakery. The borekas ($1.50), a flaky pastry filled with savory mashed potato, are another delight. The sweets may steal the spotlight, but the long logs of borekas that sit in a display case should not be ignored. Borekas are heavy enough to satisfy an immediate craving yet light enough to have as a late afternoon snack.
Pastry Land is a comfortable and friendly little bakery and café. Simple tables line one side of the room. Bright and cheerful paintings of scenes from Israel adorn the walls. Large brass enamel teapots and vases from Morocco, Marcus’s country of origin, sit high atop the shelves behind the counter. Strands of plastic ivy hang from floral decorations that sit on the shelves.
We sat down at one of the tables and munched away on our borekas. Galit asked about my ethnicity and then told me stories of Indian men she encountered in her youth in London. “When I straighten my hair, everyone thinks I am Indian. They all thought that I was an Indian girl.” I laughed and wondered whether the reverse would work, if I could pass off as a Sephardic Jew.
While alternating slices of borekas with sweet pastries and chatting away with Galit, it is easy to lose track of time. As it is, time seems to move more slowly in Brookline, where the neighborhood is quiet and people stroll casually through the streets as though minutes are not pressing behind them. Popping final hamantaschens into our mouths, we left Pastry Land.
Diagonally across the street stands The Butcherie, a small Kosher grocery. In the far left of the shop is the butcher’s area. Prime cuts of meat killed according to Kosher laws sit proudly in the display cases. The remainder of the store is divided into aisles filled with prepackaged Kosher foods, imports from Israel and other gourmet items: pre-cooked and frozen potato latkas, bottles of geflite fish balls, matzoh balls and chicken broth. Nearby the butcher’s area sits a baked goods section. A new variety of hamantaschen made its debut: chocolate-dipped hamantaschen ($4.99). The babka, a dense loaf with alternating layers of soft dough and chocolate, is a true indulgence ($6.99). The 24 oz. bread can feed many people or one famished chocolate lover. Large packages of neatly rolled rugalach ($5.99) are as promising as the babka. For those who have fallen in love with the hamantaschen filling, The Butcherie sells small containers of apricot, prune and apple jam, as well as the poppy seed, sold by weight. Signs for Purim foods were plastered everywhere, above hamantaschen, Israeli chocolate bars and gum drops. “At my house, we give friends and family sweets for the holiday,” explained my companion Barbara Magid. Purim went beyond hamantaschen to incorporate a variety of sweets, thereby becoming a true culinary expedition.
The Jewish scriptures mention that one must drink on Purim until he can no longer tell the difference between the evil Haman and the blessed Mordechai. Devouring Haman’s ears, in all shapes and sizes, and stuffing our mouths with borekas and babka is only the beginning of the ensuing feast.
Kupel’s Bake & Bagel
421 Harvard Street
417 Harvard Street
428 Harvard Street