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HOLIDAY FEATURE

NEW YORK, Feb. 25 (JTA) — A page-turner with the pace of a John le Carre espionage novel, the Book of Esther is a tale of power and intrigue, of plots, counterplots and thwarted schemes. It is a story within a story that just keeps unfolding.

In his cookbook “The World of Jewish Entertaining,” Rabbi — and chef — Gil Marks explains that many Purim dishes involve a filling or stuffing, alluding to the many secrets and surprises in the Purim story.

Honoring this tale of duplicity and betrayal, the most famous recipes among Ashkenazi Jews are for hamantashen, which are often stuffed with poppy seeds or jam. Less well known in this country, however, are the traditional Sephardi cookies that pay homage to the intrigues of Queen Esther.

Overjoyed by King Ahashuerus’ sparing of the Jews of Persia, Mordecai declared Purim to be a time to give charity to the poor and shalach manot, or portions of edible gifts to loved ones. To this day, Sephardi Jews exchange pastries stuffed with almonds, walnuts — and even pistachios.

“An airy confection from Iraq, my ancestral home, malfuf are cigar shaped cookies made from filo dough filled with ground almonds,” says attorney Carole Basri, who teaches cooking classes through Sephardic House in New York. “You can substitute pistachios or walnuts, but the most delicate malfuf start with almonds.”

While making filo from scratch is labor intensive, you can buy it in freezer sections of most supermarkets.

“Preparing malfuf requires a long stick, though,” Basri says. She uses the horizontal rung of a wooden coat hanger that she’s pulled free of its hinges.

Malfuf recipes call for rose water, a sweetly scented elixir that infuses cookies with Asian flavor. Rose water is sold at some health food stores, and at Indian or Middle Eastern markets.

Adored throughout the Middle East by Jews and Arabs alike, ma’amoul are particularly popular in Israel. Traditionally, they are formed with ma’amoul molds, small wooden cookie cutters with handles available in the marketplace of Jerusalem. But if you’re not planning a trip to Israel, you can purchase them at some Middle Eastern markets, or better still, simply use the tines of a fork. Taking their name for the word that means “filled” in Arabic, ma’amoul are made up of a crumbly dough that is filled with ground nuts and sugar. Once cooled, they are sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar, accentuating their lovely design.

For people who have no time to bake, almond-filled figs are a quick, oven-free option. Fun to make for children of all ages, these delightful sweets entail stuffing almonds into dried figs and coating them with honey and shredded coconut. With their concealed fillings, these three confections are a wonderful tribute to Queen Esther.

Malfuf

(Recipe by Carole Basri)

1/2 cup sugar

2 cups blanched almonds, finely ground in a food processor

1 Tbsp. rose water

1/2 lb. filo dough (follow pkg. directions for defrosting)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Mix together sugar, almonds and rose water.

3. Frozen filo comes in 12-by-17-inch pieces. Cut each piece in half horizontally, making two 12-by-81/2-inch

pieces.

4. Spread 1 tsp. of almond mixture 11/2 inches in from the smaller (81/2-inch) edge. Roll dough around almond

mixture once.

5. Place a wooden stick (rung from coat hanger) next to rolled dough. Continue rolling dough around stick. When at the end, remove stick with care. Pinch edges to close, pleating cookie slightly.

6. Place malfuf on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake for 10 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve immediately or when cool, store in an airtight container.

Ma’amoul

Dough

11/2 cups flour

10 Tbsp. butter or margarine, cold

2 Tbsp. sugar

5 Tbsp. orange juice

Filling

1/2 cup walnuts

2 Tbsp. sugar

3/4 tsp. cinnamon

Garnish: 2 Tbsp. confectioners’ sugar

1. Place metal cutting blade inside food processor.

2. Sift flour and place in food processor. Add shortening, sugar and juice. Process for 2-3 minutes, until a crumbly dough forms.

3. Move to a medium-sized bowl. Cover and let rest for 30 minutes.

4. Meanwhile using metal cutting blade in food processor, add filling ingredients. Process until walnuts are coarsely

ground, about one minute.

5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 2 cookie sheets with no-stick vegetable spray.

6. Roll dough into balls 11/2 inches in diameter. Press pinkie finger into ball forming a well. Fill well with 1/8 tsp. walnut mixture. Carefully close dough around filling, shaping it into a ball and pinching closed with fingers. Gently press tines of a fork into ball, creating a design and flattening cookie slightly.

7. Place on cookie sheets and bake for 15 minutes or until light brown. When cool, place confectioners’ sugar in a strainer and sprinkle over cookies.

Almond Filled Figs

1 cup honey

7 ounce pkg. sweetened flaked coconut

11/2 lbs. dried figs, about 24 large plump figs

24 whole blanched almonds

1. Pour 1/4 cup of honey into a small, shallow bowl, adding more as needed.

2. Place half the coconut in a small bowl, adding more as needed.

3. With a knife, carefully remove stubs of stems from figs. Gently slide point of knife in the opening. Push almond into opening. Pinch incision closed with fingers.

4. Roll fig in honey, removing excess. Sprinkle on all sides with coconut. Place on plate for one hour to set. Store in an airtight container.

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