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Sweet Nothings ...

March 17, 2011 By:
Linda Morel
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WHAT'S COOKING?

One March decades ago, the scent of warm strawberry and dough browning in the oven greeted me at the door of an apartment. A friend and I were visiting her grandmother. Entering the kitchen, we found this busy woman's counters piled with cookies and little cakes, assorted in boxes.

"Purim is coming," she said, pulling two trays of triangular cookies from the oven, which I recognized as hamantashen. "Baking for Purim is a good way to use up the flour in your house before Passover."

"But what do you do with all these pastries?" I asked.

"I give them away in small portions," said Grandma. "To people I love." She placed strawberry-filled hamantashen and chocolate cookies oozing with melted chocolate bits on a plate, and poured us glasses of milk.

"That's a lot of love," I said.

I later learned that the portions she was giving her relatives and friends are part of a Purim tradition called mishloach manot.

In the Purim story, which took place in ancient Persia, King Achashverosh's vizier Haman intended to annihilate the Jewish people. When his wicked plot was foiled, Mordecai, a respected member of the Jewish community, instructed the Jews to make Purim, and send portions to one another and remember the poor.

Since then, it has become customary to give one or two baked goods, wine or other goodies to friends and relatives, along with making donations to people in need.

Now a grandmother myself, I realize this simple act of exchanging sweets at Purim encourages a sense of community between Jews whose strong ties to one another surpass time and international borders.

That is why I bake little pastries every Purim -- and give them all away.

The most practical sweets to place in mishloach manot boxes are cookies, small pastries, non-meltable candies and slices of cakes without frosting.

Poppy-Seed Pound Cakes

(Pareve or Dairy)

Poppy seeds are a traditional ingredient in Purim pastries. Slice and package with rest of goodies.

  • nonstick cooking spray 
    1 cup margarine or unsalted butter (at room temperature) 
    1/2 lb. sugar 
    3 large eggs 
    1/2 lb. flour 
    1/2 tsp. lemon extract 
    1 tsp. grated lemon zest 
    1/2 tsp. poppy seeds

Preheat oven to 350°.

Coat two loaf pans (8x31/2x21/2 inches) with nonstick spray.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter or margarine for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the mixture appears pale yellow.

Slowly add the sugar, continuing to beat for 1 minute.

Add the eggs, one at a time, beating between each addition. Slowly add the flour, beating until well-combined.

Add the lemon extract, lemon zest and poppy seeds, beating to combine. With a spatula, scrape down sides of the bowl and beat again.

Turn equal amounts of batter into prepared loaf pans. Bake for 40 minutes, or until the tops of the cakes are light-brown, and a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Thoroughly cool the cakes in their pans on a wire rack.

For the best flavor, wrap the loaves individually in aluminum foil for a day before serving. Recipe can be frozen. When ready to serve, cut into 1/2-inch slices.

Makes 16 slices per loaf or 32 slices in all.

Dark-Chocolate Decadence Cookies

(Pareve or Dairy)

Because many people feel if a pastry isn't chocolate, it's not worth eating, you should include at least one, and probably more, chocolate treats in your boxes.

  • 4 sheets of parchment paper 
    2 cups flour 
    1/2 cup dark unsweetened cocoa 
    1 tsp. baking soda 
    1/2 tsp. salt 
    1 cup margarine, refrigerated, or 1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature 
    11/4 cups sugar 
    1/4 cup confectioners' sugar 
    1 tsp. vanilla extract 
    2 large eggs 
    2 cups (12-ounce package) semi-sweet chocolate morsels

Preheat oven to 350°.

Line four baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium-sized bowl, combine the flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt. Reserve.

In a large bowl, using electric beaters, cream the margarine or butter with the two sugars until well-combined. Add the vanilla and beat briefly until combined.

Beat in half of the flour mixture. Then add 1 egg. Beat in the remaining flour mixture, followed by the second egg. Beat until ingredients are entirely incorporated. Batter will be stiff.

Add the chocolate morsels and mix with a wooden spoon until incorporated throughout.

Drop the dough on the cookie sheets by rounded tablespoons.

Bake cookies for 14 to 16 minutes, or until no longer shiny on top. Remove from oven and cool for 5 minutes before moving to a platter to finish cooling.

Serve immediately, or keep for up to three days in an airtight container. Recipe freezes well.

Makes 4 dozen cookies.

Bittersweet Fudge

(Dairy)

Squares of this petit sweet can be placed in boxes, but should be kept refrigerated until ready to eat.

  • 4 oz. unsweetened baker's chocolate 
    3 Tbsps. unsalted butter 
    13/4 cups confectioners' sugar 
    1/4 tsp. salt 
    1 Tbsp. maple syrup, preferably Grade A, dark amber 
    3 Tbsps. cream

Pour water in the bottom of a double boiler and bring to a rolling boil. (Instead of a double boiler, you can use a regular pot and a heat-proof bowl.)

Place the chocolate and butter in the top portion of the double boiler and set over boiling water. Stir often until entirely melted and combined. Remove top portion from boiling water, cover and cool to room temperature.

Sift the confectioners' sugar into a large mixing bowl and add salt. Slowly drizzle in the maple syrup and then the cream, while beating mixture on a low speed until well-incorporated. Mixture will be stiff.

Add the chocolate mixture to the confectioners' sugar and beat until entirely combined.

With a spatula, move fudge to an 8x8-inch brownie pan. With an offset knife, smooth fudge evenly across the top of the pan.

Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 4 hours or overnight.

Cut into squares, four down and four across. Refrigerate until serving.

Makes 16 squares.

Linda Morel is a writer based in New York City. E-mail her at: [email protected].

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