NEW YORK, Feb. 4 (JTA) — “People go for themes these days,” says a mother from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, explaining how the custom of giving gifts at Purim has escalated since her childhood in the 1950s. Back then, people followed tradition: Family members in every household gave two foods to two people. Called portions, these foods were often homemade, and hamantashen were king. Today people hire companies to deliver Purim portions with pizzazz. Last year, this Manhattan mom received a breakfast basket from friends that contained bagels, cream cheese, cocoa, muffins and mini-cereal boxes. Another couple selected a chocolate theme, sending a tin full of everything: chocolate syrup, cake, cookies, pudding and candy bars. Although these upscale offerings are creative, they are a quantum leap from Mordecai’s intention after the Jews of Persia defeated Haman. Overjoyed that they had prevailed over Haman’s wicked plot to annihilate them, Mordecai declared Purim to be a time to give charity to the poor and shalach manot, or portions of edible presents, to loved ones. Traditionally, people have exchanged a fruit and a baked good, presented on trays. In an attempt to preserve the spirit of the holiday, the Manhattan mom wants her children to participate in a meaningful shalach manot. Together they bake hamantashen, various cookies and small cakes. They place pastries in Purim boxes, which can be purchased at Judaica stores or synagogue gift shops. Bringing boxes to two of their friends, each child also gives them to grandparents and family friends. While the personal gesture is waning in America, in other countries people bake sweets by the dozen at Purim, turning it into a virtual cookie exchange. Although the holiday’s signature dish, hamantashen, remains popular, people throughout the world also stuff baskets with slices of cake and favorite cookies. Typical of Jewish culinary history, Purim baking has been influenced by local cuisine, and every country has its own customs. Russian Jews make streudels, teiglach and sugar cookies. In Morocco, people exchange small breads filled with hard-boiled eggs. In Prague, they bake huge challahs topped with oversized braids, symbolizing the rope used to hang Haman. Usually celebrated on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, Purim is observed the next day by people living in cities that were surrounded by walls in ancient times. Thus Israelis in Tel Aviv should observe Purim on a different day than people in Jerusalem. But the holiday is such an event in Israel that many people celebrate on both days. Shalach manot is taken seriously, and baking begins several weeks in advance. Israelis prepare everything from peanut butter cookies to favorite Chanukah and Rosh Hashanah sweets. In America, Jews often exchange hamantashen, honey cake and our country’s favorite treat — chocolate chip cookies. Although many Americans purchase pastries in bakeries, the recipes below take little time and no expertise. With help, children can participate too. Inspired by English bread pudding, challah pudding squares are layered with creamy custard and golden raisins. This recipe serves a practical purpose, consuming every bag of leftover challah floating in the freezer. As the last holiday before Passover, Purim should be a baking bonanza that dwindles a family’s supply of flour, a time to give portions of love and cookies.
PEANUT BUTTER COOKIES
Non-stick cooking spray
2 sticks of margarine, room temperature
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey
1 cup creamy peanut butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Generously coat baking sheets with cooking spray
3. Cut each stick of margarine into 8 pieces. Save.
4. Mix remaining ingredients in a large bowl.
5. Add margarine, mixing well until batter holds together.
6. By rounded teaspoons, roll batter in palms into balls.
7. Place on baking sheets.
8. Bake 15-20 minutes until cookies are light brown.
9. Cool two minutes before removing from baking sheets. Yield: 5 dozen. Recipe freezes well.
CHUNKY CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES
Non-Stick Cooking Spray
1 cup margarine, room temperature
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup pecans, coarsely ground
1/2 cup blanched almonds, coarsely ground
3/4 cup raisins
6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
6 ounces white chocolate chips
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Generously coat baking sheets with cooking spray.
3. Place margarine, sugars, and vanilla in a large bowl, beating on high speed until creamy, about 2 minutes.
4. Add eggs, beating until well blended.
5. Gradually add flour, salt and baking soda.
6. Add remaining ingredients, mixing well.
7. Drop batter by rounded teaspoons onto cookie sheets.
8. Bake 8-10 minutes, until golden and browning at edges. Cool 3 minutes before removing from baking sheets. Yield: 7 dozen. Recipe freezes well.
CHALLAH PUDDING SQUARES
1 quart 2-percent milk
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup sugar
No-Stick Cooking Spray
24 slices of challah, plus broken pieces
8 pats of butter, room temperature
1 Rome apple, skinned, cored, and cut into 1/4-inch slices.
1/2 cup golden raisins
1. In a large bowl, beat eggs until foamy. Add milk, cinnamon, vanilla, and sugar beating well. Put aside.
2. Coat a 13-by-9-by-2 inch baking dish with cooking spray.
3. Buttering one side of eight slices of challah, place in baking dish buttered side down. Pieces may overlap. Fill spaces between slices with broken pieces of challah.
4. Scatter half of apple slices and half of raisins on top. Pour 25 percent of milk mixture over this layer.
5. Cover with another eight slices of unbuttered challah, repeating steps for first layer. Pour another 25 percent of milk over top.
6. Cover with last eight slices, repeating steps again. Pour remaining milk evenly over top.
7. Dust with cinnamon and dot with remaining butter.
8. Bake at 325 degrees for 80 minutes until top browns and custard sets. Remove from oven and cover with foil. Cool 30 minutes before slicing. Yield: 24 squares.