Every year, Purim reignites the quest for the perfect hamantaschen. Over the last few weeks I have heard the topic come up over and over again, and it seems people will sometimes go to extreme lengths to find that perfect Purim cookie.
At my synagogue in New Jersey, one woman drives all the way to Queens to pick up 1,500 of what she considers the cream of the crop, lest our Congregation Beth El’s mishloach manot (gift baskets) be filled with anything less. A friend of mine recently told me that she had made hamantaschen every year since she entered college, and was trying yet another new recipe this week. And of course you can count on local Facebook groups like Jewish Parents Connecting in Essex County for a debate about the best local confection.
It seems that whether you bake or buy, hamantaschen consumption is serious business. Me, I fall in the latter camp. I am happy to spend days cooking for Shabbat but will avoid baking if I can help it. And so, yesterday morning my kids and I drove 30 minutes to Bovella’s Pastry Shoppe in Westfield, NJ to taste test their hamantaschen.
Why a 30-minute drive for hamantaschen? How about a little background. My mother’s family emigrated from Italy to Newark, NJ by way of Asbury Park in the early 1900s. I grew up eating the most fabulous pastries, usually from Gencarelli’s Bakery in Bloomfield, NJ. After a special meal my grandmother, and later my mother, would fill a plate with cannolis, eclairs, cream puffs, fruit tarts, and other Italian treats, and the family would sit around the table drinking coffee and chatting. My husband and I actually chose not to use a kosher caterer for our wedding just so we could have Gencarelli’s pastries for dessert. When we decided that our home would be a kosher one, I mourned for the pastries. The thought of this sweet connection to my family not being a part of our simchas (celebrations) was heartbreaking.
Maybe you are thinking, “But there are lots of kosher bakeries!” To which I say, would you order pastrami on rye from an Italian deli? Pick up a brisket from the Italian joint down the street for Rosh Hashanah? I didn’t think so.
Our Italian-Jewish fate changed when I discovered Bovella’s Pastry Shoppe in Westfield, NJ. My son and I were strolling through the picturesque downtown and came upon a corner shop with little, wrought iron tables and an inviting striped awning. Someone opened the door, and I knew the moment that sweet pastry aroma filled my nose that we had stumbled upon something good. We both excitedly entered and looked longingly at the gold accented cases of cakes, cookies, pastries, and breads. We tasted. We laughed. We high-fived. We brought some home.
We came back. Again, and again we found ourselves bopping around Westfield and making a stop at Bovella’s for a treat. One day while nibbling on a pignoli cookie I noticed some Hebrew text out of the corner of my eye. Could it be? This deliciousness is KOSHER?! I got up and looked closer. Sure enough, it was their kashrut certification stating that my new little beloved Italian bakery was under the rabbinical supervision of Rabbi Isaiah Hertzberg.
A few months after this discovery, my daughter was born. We named her after my great-grandmother who traveled across the Atlantic to start a new life for my family here in America. The naming was emotional as I recounted the tale of my great grandmother Elvira and all she had sacrificed so baby Vera could have a better life. We wrapped her in my husband’s tallit (prayer shawl) and blessed our little Italian-Jewish baby. When the ceremony was over, our friends and family strolled into the synagogue’s social hall, and there waiting for them were plates piled high with all of my favorite pastries. Italian and kosher and all. My heart was full.
I felt similarly warm and fuzzy as my kids and I tasted all five flavors of hamantaschen at Bovella’s Pastry Shoppe yesterday. We sat amongst neighbors and business people sipping espresso, smiling between bites of apricot, apple, chocolate brownie, raspberry, and prune. The three-sided cookies, like all of their other treats, did not disappoint. Perfectly shaped little pockets of goodness. Sweet, but not too sugary. Firm without being crumbly. Just the right amount of filling.
Of course you do not have to take my word for it. Go there and taste test the hamantaschen for yourself. Try out their pareve Italian cookies while you are at it, or stop in on a Friday to grab a challah. Then, after you have realized what you have been missing, you can thank me. Who knows, maybe you will see me there—sipping a cappuccino, baby Vera in my arms, daydreaming about my foremothers and how happy they must be for me and my family. Chag Purim Sameach and Buone Feste!