Sunday, February 24, 2013

Purim and Grandma's Kipfel

Today is Purim, probably the least-known Jewish holiday to non-Jews. It’s also the most frivolous and fun. The twitter version of the Purim story is that the Jews were saved from extermination in Ancient Persia by Esther (yay, a woman did it) who foiled the attempt of Haman (the king’s nasty advisor) to put all Jews to death. Dodging a genocide is truly cause for celebration among my tribe because it is something that rarely occurred in our entire history, which is fundamentally a string of exterminations that chased us around the globe as we ran from pillar to post trying to save our skins, since we had no homeland (until Israel). It’s a wonder any of us are left.

The Purim story is recounted in the Biblical Book of Esther, or Megillat Esther, and if you want to know the story you can literally read “the whole megillah” in the old testament. Purim is the big eat, drink, and be merry holiday. Celebrants are supposed to drink until we don’t know the difference between Haman and Esther, which is a rather dubious measure of drunkenness. Not your local cop’s breathalyzer test. We eat poppy seed pastries called hamentashen, shaped in triangles because Haman wore a three-cornered hat. On Purim we dress up in costumes; and cross-dressing is much encouraged. We read the Book of Esther out loud, and every time Haman’s name is said, we make a holy racket:  hollering, spinning noisemakers, stamping our feet. When I was a little girl, we wrote “Haman” on the bottom of our shoes with chalk so we could stamp his name out. Purim celebrants are instructed to turn everything on its head so that confusion reigns. Purim reminds us to take a break from reality and the value of getting a new perspective on things by stepping outside our routines, stepping outside the comfortable organization of our lives, taking a vacation from our usual selves, and basically shaking things up.

For many years I have been meaning to figure out a gluten-free version of my Grandma Wachspress’s terrific hamentashen recipe and yesterday I decided was the day to do it. Her hamentashen were so delectable because she used a traditional Hungarian kipfel dough. Kipfel is a heart attack on a cookie sheet. I have seen a number of recipes for kipfel and all of them have heavy fat content. Grandma W’s recipe uses a half a pound of butter and a half a pound of high-test full-strength cream cheese. In fact, this recipe lends itself well to gluten-free conversion since the flour is buried in mounds of fat and therefore unrecognizable as a significant ingredient. Yesterday I made Grandma W’s hamentashen recipe, converting the wheat flour to brown rice flour. The result was the most outrageous gluten-free pastries, like straight from the old country.

So I took my life-altering hamentashen to synagogue last night for the Purim Party. I slipped them inconspicuously on the food table in among the mountains of food and the plates and plates of hamentashen. I put a little sign on mine that said they were gluten-free and that I made them, to let people know they had no gluten and in case anyone wanted to come tell me that they had an epiphany when they bit into my hamentashen. I quietly waited for the festivities to grind to a halt as my hamentashen brought everyone to their knees. To understand the full extent of my fantasy, you have to picture the volume of hamentashen of every imaginable type at this event. I’m talking plates overflowing with prune-filled, chocolate, marmalade, strawberry, traditional poppy seed, and raisin/walnut hamentashen. I’m talking whole wheat, flaky white flour, other gluten-free styles, and vegan hamentashen. When our congregation does Purim, we be hamentashen.

Here is what actually happened. I received a few modest compliments and then an elderly member of the congregation, who is an outstanding cook and who has made the most marvelous Jewish cuisine for many synagogue events, this one elderly woman sought me out to tell me that my hamentashen were delicious and that it had been a long time since she had tasted such a fine Hungarian kipfel. She made my night!  There are probably few Jews still living who know what a real old-world Hungarian kipfel tastes like. I think that no one, except this elder, at last night’s Purim Party could even recognize an authentic kipfel. So much is lost to us when our elders pass on. But today I am still celebrating my inheritance from Grandma W:  hamentashen with real kipfel for breakfast (EKG and resuscitation at noon). Here is the link to the hamentashen recipe (which includes instructions for making kipfel). 

(Not mine, just a stock photo. I'm no photographer, 
but wanted those who don't know to see what hamentashen look like. 
Mine look a lot like these.)

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