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Homemade Purim treats sweeten holiday

NEW YORK, Feb. 17 JTA) — Why bother baking this Purim when you can buy mishloach manot gifts from one of those companies that assemble dazzling assortments of goodies? Covering all the bases, these gifts arrive in baskets layered with hamantashen, bitter-sweet and milk chocolates, dried fruit, kosher wine, Israeli music on CDs, noisemakers and masks. But like the Golem of 19th century Prague, that clay Goliath who, according to legend toiled for the Jews, mass produced mishloach manot baskets lack a soul. There is nothing of the sender’s personality among cellophane wrappers, nothing to connect baskets bursting with treats to the electronically printed names on gift cards. Purchased by phone or online, these elaborate baskets pale in comparison to the cookies and small cakes Jewish women once baked at Purim, confections they exchanged with loved ones on small silver plates engraved with scenes from the Megillah of Esther. These engravings depicted how Mordecai, the leader of ancient Persia’s Jewish community, overheard the king’s vizier Haman planning to annihilate his people. To avert disaster, Mordecai convinced his niece Esther, who had married the king some time before, to save her people from death by waiting for the right moment to reveal her religion and Haman’s wicked plot to the king. At the celebration that followed, Mordecai called this joyous day Purim. He implored Jews to remember Purim as a time of thanksgiving and feasting, to send money to the poor and mishloach manot, portions of baked goods to friends. In America, land of super-sized portions, the concept of mishloach manot has grown larger by the decade, along with television screens. Quantities are up, but the personal touch is down. Although modern Jewish families juggle kids and careers, no one can deny that the taste of homemade confections, even if lopsided and imperfect, are far superior to anything mass produced. Pastries in shrink wrap not only lack air but a story connected to the baker. “I learned my hamantashen recipe from the rabbi’s wife at Temple Shalom in Dallas,” says Mara Levi, now the chef and owner of Mara’s Homemade, a Manhattan restaurant specializing in new American cuisine and Jewish food with a Southern twist. “He was the rabbi who introduced me to my husband.” An active member of the sisterhood, Levi baked for the kiddush with other women. “Each year, we prepared hamantashen for Purim in the Temple kitchen. My kids grew up in that kitchen.” With a unique texture, her hamantashen are as soft as a pillow, more like Danish pastry than cookies. From the first flaky bite, people know they’re tasting hand rolled dough, rather than commercially produced hamantashen, which can be as stiff as cardboard. Among Ashkenazi Jews, hamatashen are the most popular pastry for Purim. But in the Sephardic world, recipes abound for phyllo confections. Because Purim is a story of duplicity, a story within a story, sweets filled with fruit and nuts are associated with the holiday. However, baking any favorite dessert is appropriate, especially if you have memories attached to recipes. “My mother used to make Raspberry Almond Buttons every Purim and Chanukah,” says David Glickman, a chef who has cooked in kitchens such as the renowned Union Square Cafe and Park Bistro in Manhattan. “She made up the recipe for these snappy cookies, which I feel are even richer than hamantashen. As a kid, I looked forward to them. I furtively popped a few in my mouth when my mother wasn’t looking. But I think she figured it out pretty quickly.” Glickman is the owner of, an online service that teaches people to prepare meals at home using secrets from professional chefs, making cooking less stressful and time consuming, and ultimately more fun. While Glickman got his start at age 11 from a neighborhood woman who gave cooking lessons, Levi acquired her skills from relatives. “When I was in fourth grade, my parents had to sell their house,” says Levi. “We moved in with my grandparents, who lived upstairs from my aunt and uncle. In this multi-generation setting, my grandmother did all the cooking; my Aunt Frances did all the baking.” Rivaling the richness of ganache, Aunt Frances’ brownies contain a secret ingredient — mini marshmallows, which contribute to their gooey soft centers. “Whenever she served these fabulous brownies at buffets, guests used to drop dark crumbs, accidentally stomping them into the carpet,” says Levi, laughing. “My uncle got so upset that eventually she stopped making them.” Successfully reinventing the wheel, David Glickman created his Roasted Apple Cherry Cranberry Napoleon. Perfect for Purim or any occasion, this luscious but light dessert is also pareve. “The taste has a lot of impact, but your guests don’t have to know it’s easy to make,” he says. In a country where home baking is a dying art, many people are terrified of electric mixers, let alone rolling dough. But both Levi and Glickman teach hands-on classes at the culinary studio of the Jewish community center in Manhattan, where they expose beginners and more experienced cooks to recipes they can easily reproduce at home. Last summer, the studio’s innovative director, Julie Negrin, renovated the kosher, yet fully equipped, professional kitchen. Inviting restaurant chefs and cookbook authors to share their skills, she offers courses on Thai, Mediterranean, Moroccan and Indonesian cuisine. Not to mention a sushi class and one called Mex in the City. During February and March, Jennifer Felicia Abadi, author of “A Fistful of Lentils: Syrian-Jewish Recipes from Grandma Fritzie’s Kitchen” The Harvard Common Press, 2002), is teaching a Persian Purim Celebration, a complete meal from Chicken with Pomegranate Juice and Walnuts to Saffron Doughnuts for dessert. Rosemary Black, author of “The Kids’ Holiday Baking Book” St. Martin’s Press, 2003) is teaching a class for families on baking hamantashen, almond macaroons and warm carrot pudding. Between Negrin’s charming personality and her mouth-watering menu of classes, she succeeds in attracting students who return for course after course, often bringing their friends. She hopes they will add the recipes they learn to their repertoire, eventually passing them onto their children. Like Mordecai who preserved the Jews of ancient Persia, Negrin’s aim is to promote Jewish life in Manhattan through cooking and baking. Yet with Purim fast approaching, it is tempting to purchase mishloach manot baskets, to whip out a credit card and click away online. If pressed for time, consider making a few treats for special people. Touched by this delicious gesture, they will sense your spirit inside every sweet bite.RASPBERRY ALMOND BUTTONS1/2 cup soft butter1/3 cup sugar1/4 teaspoon salt1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract1 egg separated1 cup flour3/4 cup blanched almonds, toasted and chopped8 ounces seedless raspberry jamMakes about 3 dozen cookiesGet ahead:Cookie sheet or sheet panCool and store in airtight container. Cookies will keep for up to one week stored at room temperature and up to 2 months stored in the freezer.1. In a large mixing bowl with paddle attachment, cream butter well.2. Add sugar, salt and vanilla extract and blend together.3. Add egg yolk and beat until light in color, about 1-2 minutes.4. Add flour and stir well.5. Wrap dough in parchment paper and chill for at least 1 hour.To Complete:Preheat oven to 300̊F. Divide dough into thirds, and on lightly floured parchment paper, shape into three rolls that are about 1-inch thick in diameter. Cut rolls into 3/4-inch rounds. Dip each round into reserved egg white that has had a little water added to it. Dip into almonds to coat and press centers with your thumb. Warm raspberry jam slightly, making it easier to handle. Spoon a small amount of jam into each thumbprint. Bake on un-greased cookie sheet for about 20 minutes, until set and barely golden.ROASTED APPLE-CHERRY-CRANBERRY NAPOLEON1/2 cup dried cherries1/2 cup dried cranberries1/4 cup orange liqueur1 sheet Pepperidge Farm puff pastry, defrosted2 tablespoons maple sugar or granulated cane sugar1 tablespoon water4 cups gala apples, peeled, cored and diced (about 2pounds whole)1 tablespoon honey1 pinch salt3 tablespoons walnut crunch, chopped (recipe below)Powdered sugar for garnishServes 6Get ahead:The apple-cherry-cranberry mixture can be made up to 3 days in advance, cooled and stored, covered, in the refrigerator.The puff pastry can be cooked up to 2 days in advance, cooled, cut and stored in an airtight container.2-quart saucepansheet pan3-quart saute pan1. Preheat oven to 400̊F.2. Add orange liqueur to saucepan and bring to a boil. Add dried cherries and cranberries and remove from theheat. Allow to steep for 20 minutes.3. Place puff pastry sheet on top of parchment lined sheet pan.4. Take two forks and “dock” the surface by pricking with the fork.5. Place another sheet of parchment paper on top of puff pastry and another sheet pan on top. Bake in the ovenfor 10 minutes.6. Remove top sheet pan and parchment paper and continue baking for 10 minutes or until pastry is goldenbrown. Remove from oven and allow to cool on cooling rack.7. Add sugar and water to the saute pan and bring to a boil. Cook until sugar begins to turn light brown.8. Add apples, honey and salt and steeped cherries and all of the orange liqueur. Place in the oven and cook untilapples are tender, about 12-15 minutes.To Complete:Using a fork, smash some of the apples to create a chunky smoothness. Try and maintain at least half of the nicely cut diced apples. Using a serrated knife, cut pastry sheets lengthwise into thirds. Then cut each sheet into quarters, crosswise. You should have 12 pieces of puff pastry. Place 6 pieces on 6 plates. Spoon cooled apple-cherrymixture over pastry. Sprinkle evenly with walnut crunch and place tops on. Sift the tops with a little powered sugar and serve immediately.WALNUT CRUNCH1/2 cup walnuts1/4 cup granulated sugar2 tablespoons water1/2 teaspoon saltMakes about 1/2 cupGet Ahead:The nuts can be made up to three days ahead, cooled and covered tightly.sheet pan3 quart saucepanwooden spoonparchment paper or silpat1. Preheat oven to 325̊F.2. Toast walnuts on a sheet pan for 10-12 minutes, until lightly golden.3. Combine sugar, water and salt in saute pan.4. Bring to a boil and simmer over low to medium heat until mixture begins to caramelize and turn medium brown(about 10 minutes).5. Add the nuts to the saute pan and quickly toss and fold with the spoon and spread out onto a waiting sheet panlined with parchment paper or silpat (take care as the mixture is scorching hot!).To Complete:Allow to cool completely and roughly chop with a sharp knife.Recipes from Mara LeviHAMANTASHENSift into bowl: 1 1/2 cups sugar4 cups all purpose flour1 tablespoon baking powder1/2 teaspoon saltUsing dough hook, mix in: 1 cup butterAdd: 2 eggs1/4 cup orange juiceMix until firm dough is made (tight ball). Chill.Use a thick, firm filling. Preferred fillings include poppy butter, prune (lekvar), apricot and raspberry jams.Preheat oven to 375.Roll dough out 1/4” thick. Cut into circles by pressing an upside down glass into dough. Carefully place 1 teaspoon filling into center of circle. Bring together two sides, pinching together. Bring up third side and pinch to other two sides forming a triangle. Be sure to leave an opening in center so you can see the filling. Repeat with remaining circles.Bake for 10 —12 minutes, or until dough is golden. Store in airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days. FUDGY DOUBLE CHOCOLATE BROWNIES1 cup Crisco4 squares bakers unsweetened chocolate4 eggs2 cups granulated sugar2 tsp. pure vanilla extract1 cup sifted cake flour2 cups mini-marshmallows or 16 oz. marshmallow fluff2 cups regular chocolate chipsPam1. Melt Crisco and chocolate in microwave for one minute. Stir with a whisk or rubber spatula. Microwave again for 1 minute.2. In another bowl, mix eggs and sugar until thick.3. Gradually add melted mixture to sugared eggs. Blend well.4. Add Vanilla and flour. Mix until well blended.5. Fold in marshmallows and chocolate chips. 6. Spray a 13 x 9 x 2 inch cake pan with Pam. Pour batter inside evenly. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes. Rotate pan and bake 5 more minutes. Cracks will be apparent throughout. Toothpick may not come out clean. The texture will be moist and fudgy.7. Cut into squares and store in airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days.Yield: 32 brownies