Purim is coming up in just a few weeks. In our house, this means the girls are planning their costumes, I'm considering hamantashen fillings, and the Purim books are on heavy rotation at bedtime. One of the most popular books these days is Cakes and Miracles by Barbara Diamond Goldin, which my daughters received from The PJ Library last month.
It's a wonderfully sweet story of a mother and her blind son, Hershel, who live in a shtetl, a small Jewish community in Eastern Europe. When Hershel is disappointed that his mother won't allow him help her bake Purim treats to sell in the marketplace, an angel visits him in a dream and urges him to create the shapes he sees in his head. Hershel surprises everyone, including himself, by shaping his mother's cookie dough into birds, fish, and goblets, which sell out in no time, making Hershel the star of the marketplace.
I'm always interested in how writers manage to write a story with a strong message without sliding down the slippery slope into, well, schmatlz. Fortunately, Barbara Diamond Goldin is one of the many children's book authors who, like me, call Western Massachusetts home. (Also Jane Yolen, Mo Willems, Patricia Machlachlan, Jeannie Birdsall and Modecai Gerstein, and all of these folks, to name but a few.) So, I invited her to get together for a chat. I expected we would discuss the idea of finding strength to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Instead, we talked cookies.
Over a pot of tea, Barbara told me about her love of the memoir Burning Lights, by Bella Chagall. In the book, Chagall, the wife of the famed painter Marc Chagall, describes the Purim traditions she grew up with in pre-war Belarus. Villagers baked sweets shaped like animals, toys, and musical instruments for their mishloach manot, the baskets of food that are traditionally sent to friends and family on Purim day.
"Our family never had the tradition of sending mishloach manot when I was a kid, and I never saw it practiced in our community" explained Barbara. "I had also never heard of Purim cookies made in different shapes. I like writing about celebrating holidays so I wanted to write about...(these customs.) I hadn't set out to write a story about a blind boy at all. But one night I had a dream about a blind boy making beautifully shaped cookies for Purim, and it all just came together."
My daughters' creations
My own daughters love the tradition of preparing, delivering, (and, of course, receiving) mishloach manot, and while we always bake the traditional three-cornered hamantashen (using my great grandmother's amazing recipe), we also try to include something new each year in our baskets. So I gave in to my daughters' pleas to give Hershel's cookies a try. (Who can blame them? After all, what could be more exciting than play dough you are actually allowed to eat?)
Like Barbara, I'd never heard of hand-sculpted cookies, and finding a recipe for dough that could be shaped like clay was a bit of a challenge. After a less than successful experiment with some homemade fondant, I settled on this dough, an amalgam of a few different recipes I found by googling "cookie sculpting."
2 ¾ cups of flour
1½ tsp of baking soda
1/4 tsp of salt
½ cup melted butter
1 cup sugar
¼ cup boiling water
½ teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon lemon juice
Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl. Mix the wet ingredients separately until the sugar is dissolved. Combine the wet and dry ingredients. Shape and brush with a beaten egg, if desired. Bake at 300 for 30 minutes or until done.
For maximum play-dough effect, we kneaded in food coloring, which proved a little challenging to distribute evenly. My daughters, who are 5 and 7, found the dough very easy to work with at first, but the longer it was exposed to the air, the more challenging it became to sculpt with. Next time we will try wrapping the dough that isn't being used in plastic wrap.
While they aren't the most delicious--or delicate--sugar cookies we've ever eaten, they are very tasty. More importantly, they are the perfect embodiment of the spirit of Purim--whimsical, joyful, and great fun to make. They will definitely be part of our mishloach manot baskets this year and for years to come. Thanks to Barbara Diamond Goldin for bringing an old tradition to life and transforming it into a new tradition for our family.
This piece is part of our monthly series with The PJ Library. The PJ Library program sends Jewish-content books and music on a monthly basis to families with children through age eight. Created by The Harold Grinspoon Foundation in partnership with local Jewish organizations and philanthropists, The PJ Library is available in more than 130 communities across North America.