The Great Hamantaschen Bake Off of 2021
How Adina Goldstein set up a dough bracket for the ages
You may have seen that my hamantaschen tweets made it all the way to a certain New York Times column on Tuesday. I was not contacted by the author and was dismissively referred to as “a woman” while others in the piece had professions.
I’m very appreciative of everyone’s support and will wear this as a badge of honor. As fate would have it, I was already planning to make hamantaschen that day, both with students and with Julia and Julianne. Rolling the dough out and shaping them brought back so many memories. I added something new this year: a cheesecake filling from Deb (I made a half batch) that was delicious on its own and combined with jams or chocolate chips. Using good jam matters: I used strawberry preserves and a blueberry sumac jam from Burlap and Barrel. I sent my friends home with hamantaschen, Dale ate a bunch, I dropped a container off at the free fridge and Madison came by to pick some up. For me, sharing hamantaschen is part of making them.
One delightful outcome of the hamantaschen discourse has been seeing so many of you make them, for the first time or the 20th (I have a whole highlight on Instagram). My friend Adina, a 7th grade teacher in the Philadelphia School District who moonlights as a baker, decided to to do a hamantaschen bakeoff. I loved watching her IG stories of the process and asked her to share more here. As she explains, you could do this with many other foods.
If you enjoyed reading about Adina’s project, please support her by purchasing a book for her students. Here’s her wishlist which has a strong focus on diverse books. Thank you to Adina for sharing and for including my recipe in your bake off!
Q: How did you decide to do the hamantaschen bake off? What were you looking to find?
A: I come from a really proud, Jewish family. My mom is one of three siblings, and our family really loves food. My mom and one of her sisters are both dietitians by training, who majored in food science, so I've always grown up thinking of food as both tasty, and really interesting. I love when we watch cooking shows and my mom is able to tell me the scientific reasons behind why something does or doesn't work. When someone adds too much baking powder, she's really able to tell me exactly what it will react with, what the outcome will be, and how that will affect the taste. Jewish holidays are a very big deal in our family, and my mom and her sisters really run the spectrum of Jewish observance, from Reform all the way to Orthodox, so my mom and I have always participated in Jewish traditions all along the spectrum of tradition, and have gotten to experience a lot of really meaningful and exciting things.
However, despite this, I realized this year that our family doesn't have a "go to" hamantaschen recipe, and when I posted on Facebook looking for friends to share theirs, a lot fewer people responded than I would've expected. If you're Jewish, you know that when you ask someone for a brisket recipe, kugel recipe or a challah recipe, you'll end up getting way more than you could ever make, and everyone takes great pride in their own. So I decided it was time, for once and for all, to figure out what my go to hamantaschen recipe will be for years to come, and with all the extra time we have on our hands these days since going out isn't what it once was, it seemed like a good time to do it.
Q: Did you grow up making hamantaschen or getting them from bakeries or something else?
A: One of my favorite memories with my mom is being really little and making hamantaschen together. We made them a lot when I was really little, and I'm sure that's definitely part of why I love baking and being in the kitchen so much. Truthfully though, in our family, I've always been the baker, while my mom has always been the cook, so I think hamantaschen baking fell off somewhere around middle school, when I started to turn my attentions to baking the cool, new recipes I was always seeing on Chopped! Hamantaschen eating stayed strong though. As proud volunteers at our synagogue's Purim Carnival every year, there were a lot of hamantaschen around and you know, you have to try every different filling that's available, so we ate a lot of them. That's actually where I was first introduced to the concept of a hamantaschen dough that has cream cheese in it. I remember the ones at our synagogue being very cream-cheesey and tangy. But, more on that later.
Q: What recipes did you test and how did you narrow it down?
A: I knew I wanted a good mix of pareve (non-dairy) recipes, especially since we keep kosher in our house, and dairy recipes because as a baker and butter enthusiast, I really haven't found anything yet, personally, that does butter quite as well but isn't actually butter (and I made my own pareve wedding cake!). I tried to find recipes that came highly recommended by a personal recommendation and that were also different enough from each other that it made sense to judge as different. In the end, I tested five recipes total: two dairy, three pareve.
1. Claire Saffitz's Hamantaschen Recipe from her new cookbook Dessert Person. Her recipe was dairy, and included butter and cream cheese. It was the only recipe I tested that used powdered sugar instead of granulated sugar. It also used lemon zest to add a little more flavor, too.
2. My husband's Aunt Ellen's go-to recipe, from the Jewish Holiday Kitchen Recipe cookbook. This recipe was nondairy and called for either margarine or butter. From having made truly delicious, buttery non-dairy chocolate chip cookies (they're actually a staple in our house. I always have a bunch of frozen cookie dough balls in the freezer, and I go for the pareve cookies, even over the dairy cookies these days, which I never thought I would say, but they're that good), I opted to use butter-flavored crisco, as I hate the taste of margarine in baked goods. I also thought this would be great to vary things a little more, too. This recipe did not include any citrus or flavoring.
3. My friend Mike's wife's grandmother's recipe (Jewish geography right there for ya, in the recipe!) which is pareve. It used considerably more eggs than any other recipe I used and used canola oil, but no citrus.
4. Jeremy Scheck's recipe that Abigail was kind enough to send to me, which used butter and orange juice.
5. Abigail's family recipe, which was very similar to the other canola oil recipe, but the proportions were vastly different. It also did not include any citrus flavoring.
Q: You kept the fillings consistent with the different doughs. What fillings did you use and why was that important?
A: Keeping the fillings consistent was the goal, but admittedly I made so many cookies that by the end I did have to break into some random jars of raspberry preserves I had in my cupboard. For the most part, though, they were consistent and that was really important to me both so I could enjoy a lot of different fillings, but also so that I could really give each cookie a fair chance. I wasn't looking to come up with my own recipe (though that might be a project for next year, because I do have a lot of ideas now...), rather I was looking for the best overall recipe, so it was important to me to taste them in all different forms and see what held up best across the filling spectrum. For the most part, I used four fillings.
1. Claire Saffitz's earl grey apricot jam from her cookbook Dessert Person which was unbelievable (I'm also just a huge fan of earl grey).
2. Lemon curd, from a jar. I love making my own lemon curd, but I was worried that homemade would be a little to loose in consistency. I actually take that back though, now, and think I would like to try that next year because it's also creamier than the stuff in the jars which I think is helpful since hamantaschen can be pretty dry.
3. Blueberry cheesecake filling, which I kind of just whipped together. The inspiration came from Molly Yeh's blueberry cream cheese filling in which she just layers cream cheese underneath blueberry jam, but I wanted it to be a little more cheesecakey, so I just whipped up the cream cheese with a little butter, egg and sugar and then swirled it into store bought blueberry jam.
4. Chocolate chips with a homemade chocolate pastry cream. This one was really important to me because chocolate is obviously amazing, but I always find that the dryness of the hamantaschen with just chocolate chips is overwhelming and hard to eat, so I thought some creaminess to offset that would work really well. It definitely did.
Q: How did you set up the tasting process and keep track of each recipe?
A: This is where being a teacher (aka being very into cutesy things) came in handy. I put a few cookies from each batch into individual cellophane baggies, each labeled with a number 1-5. Only I knew which recipe corresponded to each one. I gave the cookies to my friends and family and asked them to try them, then let me know their #1 and #2 choice, in order. I made a little chart on some looseleaf to keep track of which ones folks voted for.
Q: How did you select tasters and what grading system did you use?
A: In the end, I had 15 tasters. I really just posted on instagram and asked if any of my friends in the neighborhood wanted to taste test for me, but it was actually really cool, in the end. Of the 15 people who taste-tested, 12 were Jewish, and had some frame of reference for what a hamantaschen should taste like. Only 3 were not Jewish, but I actually thought it was really cool to do it that way because it was interesting to see how someone without a strong frame of reference for a hamantaschen ranked them in comparison to folks who have grown up eating them. I didn't do a really strict grading system, I just asked people for their overall favorite. I think if I were looking to develop my own recipe, I would have looked more closely at particular factors, but I just really wanted to know, if I make hamantaschen again, which recipe that's readily available and already created is my best overall bet? While I was making them, though, I was definitely keeping track for myself of how they looked, how easy the recipe was to make and how malleable the dough was, in addition to taste.
Q: As you baked, did you have any favorites/assumptions. Were those correct?
A: As I baked, I suspected the ones with canola oil would be crispier, and that the ones with citrus would be a little more flavorful. Of course, I also thought the one with cream cheese would be the creamiest. Those were all pretty spot on predictions. Something that I didn't necessarily think of beforehand though was the different potential for spreading while baking. It makes sense now that I think about it, but the dairy ones, with butter, definitely spread more in the oven than the non-dairy ones that did not use butter. Additionally, the ones that were more crumbly and made less of a gluey dough tended to have filling seep out more, which also makes sense in retrospect.
Q: What were your findings? Did you have the same favorites as your tasters?
A: Here's the official ranking. In the end, it seemed like there were really 3 recipes that were people’s overall favorites: Claire Saffitz’s recipe, Ben's Aunt Ellen's recommended recipe, and Abigail's family's recipe. Those got the highest number of votes, by a lot. Within that, since I asked people for their top two choices, in order, it gets a little bit less clear which one is the overall winner. While Ben's Aunt Ellen's recipe and Abigail's recipe tied for the highest number of votes as #1, Claire Saffitz's recipe had the overall highest number of votes when you combine total votes in the top 2 spots.
Claire Saffitz's recipe:
4 people voted it as first, 6 voted it as second - 10 total votes as a top 2
Aunt Ellen's recipe:
6 people voted for it as first, 0 people voted it as second - 6 votes total as top 2
6 people voted for it as first, 2 people voted for it as second - 8 total votes as a top 2
In the end, my personal favorites were Claire Saffitz's recipe and Abigail's recipe. I would turn to either of them again, but would decide between the two when figuring out what kind of hamentaschen vibe I'm going for. If I want a softer, creamier cookie, I would go with Claire Saffitz's recipe, but if I'm feeling the very traditional, crispy cookie, I would go with Abigail's recipe. As for Aunt Ellen's, I think I want to play around with that recipe (maybe that's next year's hamentaschen baking project). It was really unique and tasted great (hello, butter flavored Crisco), but it was tough to work with. In her notes, she wrote that she uses less flour than the recipe calls for, and I did follow that note, but still found it was too much and the cookies were really pretty difficult to form with even the amount I used.
Q: Are there any other foods you'd like to try this for?
A: I think a lot of other traditional Jewish foods are really ripe for a fun experiment like this. A big Shabbat dinner (when that's a thing again..) would also be a great place to test it. I've definitely used Shabbat meals as an excuse to make my friends try new recipes I'm testing out in the past. A funny story my husband I have is that our first Passover together as a married couple, we wanted to make brisket. We each insisted on using our own grandmother's recipes, only to find out later... they were basically exactly the same. I think there's so many incredible family recipes that have been passed down through generations, so it would be pretty fun to test more of them side by side to find out which ones match which occasions more or less. I think with family recipes, like hamantaschen too, you'll be hard pressed to find out which one is the "best," but like I learned with the Great Yiddish Bakeoff of 2021 (what my mom has dubbed my hamantaschen baking project), it's all about figuring out which recipes you like, and then which ones serve the different moods you're in.
Thank you again, Adina! I’m linking her wishlist one more time.
Have a good weekend and please let me know if you bake hamantaschen.