Hunting the Hamantaschen - Grampies Track the Tortes (2019) - CycleBlaze

March 14, 2019

Hunting the Hamantaschen

According to the book of Esther, Haman - an advisor to the king in the Persian empire, around 550 B.C., hatched a plan to kill all the jews in the territory. However Esther, who had married the king and was Jewish, talked him out of it. What's more, Haman got himself executed by the king.

This story is the basis of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which celebrates the deliverance. (The demise of Haman is a plus too. When the account of the thing is read during services, apparently the devotees go "ptui!" every time Haman's name is mentioned. Haman is mentioned 54 times in the story, so this is quite a custom.)

Not only does Haman get 54 ptui's per year, but a pastry variously said to depict either his ears or his triangular hat is eaten during the holiday. The pastry is filled either with poppy seed, prunes, or maybe apricot jam. Poppy is probably the main thing, and from that fact alone I would guess the pastry custom comes from eastern Europe and from the past few hundred years only. Poppy based pastries are rampant in Germany, Poland, and east.

The German origin for this pastry is embodied in its name - Haman- tasche, where tasche is German/Yiddish for pocket. The pastry is a filled pocket.

As a child, in March-the time of Purim, I would enjoy hamantaschen, which popped up in our neighbourhood Montreal bakeries, with the cookie like dough and ground poppy filling. The memory of that would have stayed in the past had I not recently

turned up a file of Hamantasch recipes left by my mother, setting me off baking up various batches. As I brought the batches to Dodie for analysis, it struck us that we were relying on 50-60 year old memories to judge whether the products were authentic.  We needed a memory refresh (though a truly great cookie is never really forgotten).

So when it appeared that we would be in Montreal at Purim as part of this cycle tour, it was a clear opportunity to hunt down some real hamantaschen in their Canadian native habitat.  That's when a brief concern surfaced. Many of the bakeries from which we remembered getting the hamantaschen no longer existed. Could it be that we now stood alone with the memory of and recipe for this cookie?

The first likely place from the "old days" that was still around was the Snowdon Deli. This place was established in 1946, making it slightly older than us. They should be a good repository of hamantaschen technology, I thought. Upon mentioning this quest (clearly a sub-quest of the torte quest) to my brother, he put forward Kosher Quality Bakery as his own first choice. I think Kosher Quality  (now, due to language laws, Qualite Cachere) is also at least as old as us.

Qualite Cachere - the plainest bakery front imaginable.
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Putting Snowdon Deli on the itinerary opened up a whole other "can of worms". Snowdon Deli gets a strong mention in the book "Save the Deli", and is famous for its selection of Jewish foods. Aside from the "standard" smoked meat, there is knishes, kasha varnishkes, kugel, kishke, latkes, blintzes, and kreplach. They also bake cheese bagelach, rugelach, mandelbrot, and mohn cookies. Of course, we also expect to see hamantaschen in there.

Save the Deli - covers all of North America and part of Europe. It devotes a strong mention to Snowdon Deli.
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So we took our seats and ordered pretty much one of each. Interestingly, Snowdon also has a bit of what you might call "fusion" food, where the fusion is between French Canadian food and Jewish food. These two cuisines were born in a cardiologists dream! Probably the most dangerous item was ordered by Sabrina. It was a mountain of smoked meat covered in poutine. Poutine itself is a mountain of greasy fries covered in cheese curds. This in turn is drowned in gravy.

Smoked meat, knishes, and blinzes.
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Poutine smokes meat, varenikes, standard Quebec greasy fries, and potato latke.
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Have a closer look at that poutine, if you dare!
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Through this, we saved room for the hamantaschen. But oy, what came was not triangular, not cookie based, and not properly mohn filled. We began to think that in fact we might be the last beings on earth to remember what this should be. 

Poor hamantash rendition at Snowdon deli.
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Laurie MarczakI have memories of us making these as kids. Illusionary or did Grandma Freda bake them for us at some point?

Definitely didn’t look like that picture!
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3 months ago

Well there was still Kosher Quality as a fallback. But things were getting too tense. Sabrina sent out an emergency text to a young Jewish friend, who could be counted on to know the current local scene. The friend recommended the bakery Ceskie's.  Ok, that's one more. And Sabrina herself recommended the restaurant Fresser's. She headed for those two, we made for Kosher Quality.

There was an encouraging number of Jewish looking people in the streets near Kosher Quality, like this dude:

Typical Hasidic dress, streets of Montreal.
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Inside the dramatically plain building were authentic looking people, like ladies with either a black doily in the hair, or badly dyed blond hair! But importantly, there were piles of packaged, triangular, stuffed, hamantaschen.  You can see that I was happy to find these:

Jackpot at Kosher Quality
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I told my story of trying to remember the true taste of hamantaschen to the lady behind the counter, and she volunteered that the packaged stuff, though labelled "Kosher Quality", was not the really best. "Really best is this", she said, and pulled out a clearly more hand crafted specimen.  But if you want to discuss taste, she added, you need to talk to the boss, Mrs. Klein.

The higher quality stuff from in the back.
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Mrs. Klein came out, and was one of those traditional ladies with the black doily in the hair. After listening to me for a bit she earnestly volunteered "to find out all about hamantaschen, just Google it." Clearly the internet has penetrated even the most protected of old time places!

We declared our expedition a success and even found ourselves with some time to spare (with Sabrina out there still researching the other two bakeries). So we took another radical step and turned our attention to the outer fringes of our Montreal bagel world, which is the Fairmount Bakery.

Fairmount claims to be the original Montreal bagel bakery, and no one disputes that it was founded in 1919, while the "other" one, our favourite on St. Viateur, is a Johnny Come Lately from 1957. The comparison is complicated, though, because Fairmount closed for many years, and was only re-established by the son of the founder, after 1957. St. Viateur is our "original", though I may say that our family lived in the neighbourhood before it was ever founded.

It's a little perverse, but we almost never patronize the Fairmount bakery. Despite the tricky but long history,  we just suspect them of being too "young" to possibly make a real bagel. The fact that these bagels have been flown to the International Space Station similarly does not impress us one little bit.

But, with some time to kill, we went there. You know, pretty good! Actually, it would be very hard to tell the two products apart, and when hot both are purely wonderful.

Proper traditional production setup at Fairmount. Hand rolling - on the left, wood oven, centre, hot ones to buy, right.
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Fairmount has the edge in cheerful graphics
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Back home, our "research teams" were also arriving. Sabrina had found some really nice hamantaschen at Fressers.  They looked a little weird, because there were poppy seeds in the cookie portion. But they were hand crafted and tasted right. Ceskie's was almost totally sold out, something Sabrina expected. On Fridays, she says, when stacks of braided sabbath egg breads (Challah) come out just before noon, they are gone by noon. But Sabrina snagged a very large  hamantasche, and it actually was judged the best by the panel of four adults and three children here. So, mission accomplished.

Hamantashen from three bakeries
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Challah from two bakeries
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But wait, another research team had been abroad. Josh had passed by the  Polish Bakery on his way home, and this time addressed the Polish man (Robert) behind the counter. (vs, yesterday;s Polish lady). Robert too asserted that "torte" is a Polish word and concept, and he reiterated the line that torte is a matter of cream and layers. He put forward the slice shown below, as an ideal example. Notably, he did not charge for this slice. Like Mrs. Klein, he takes bakery seriously if you do. He also threw in a Polish canoli and a bag of buns, but that is just what happens when you get him going.

"Brazilian" Polish torte.
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One thing that was absolutely clear about Robert's torte was that the cake between the layers had the dryness borne of being made mostly of ground nuts, probably Hazel or Brazil nuts. We suspect the Brazil nuts, given that the name of this torte was the "Brazilian".  But still, neither Robert nor yesterday's lady would flag nuts as the key torte ingredient. These folks are just all about cream and layers.

Layers, cream, nuts - the jury is still out on the key to tortes. That's good, because we have not even left the country or gotten on a bike yet! But one thing we do know, hamantaschen are alive in the Snowdon area of Montreal. But listen, lay off the smoked meat poutine!

And after all this research work, we are beat. Here we are, quite collapsed.

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Bonus: If you think I am making this up about the significance of the two bagel bakeries, watch this. You'll laugh.

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Scott AndersonGreat story. At this rate though, will you two be able to bike at all when you finally hit the road?
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3 months ago
Steve Miller/GrampiesTo Scott AndersonGood question. Stay tuned, and check in next week to find out.
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3 months ago
Steve Miller/GrampiesTo Scott AndersonThe torte slice actually posed the problem of how to divide such a small thing 7 ways. But the deli was definitely trouble, as was three bakeries worth of hamantashen. We will benefit from the chintzy portion sizes in France, but then there are the Austrians, and the Germans!
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3 months ago
Suzanne GibsonWhat a great read! I immediately googled Hamantaschen (with sch) M√ľnchen and came up with a lot of results. I asked Janos if he had ever heard of them or something similar in Hungary since much of the baking traditions were common to all of the Habsburger Empire but the answer was no.
Good luck on your torten-chase, a rewarding project and I'm sure Germany and Austria will not disappoint!
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3 months ago
Sue PriceMy thoughts exactly! You will need to do some serious pedalling after all that! But I must admit, the poutine looked amazing!
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3 months ago