An exchange of sweets – and cultures

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This past Sunday afternoon, a US Postal Service van pulled in our driveway, and the driver hustled toward our house carrying her clipboard and an odd-shaped bundle.

After signing for the package sent Express Mail from a friend living outside Los Angeles, I unwrapped a white-and-blue-checked dish towel and then a layer of aluminum foil that surrounded a plastic bag filled with small triangular pastries. Cherry and apricot jam, as well as dark poppy seeds, sparkled in the little windows formed by folding the dough around different fillings.

I read the note my friend Robin had included with her gift: "Hamantasch or Haman's Hat. In the feast of Purim, we celebrate the festival in which Esther and Mordecai defeated Haman. We make these pastries in the shape of Haman's hat."

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I brewed a pot of tea and shared a cup with my husband as we sampled the treats. The soft dough melted around our bites of fruit or poppy seeds. I thought of my friend baking these sweets for her family's Friday night Sabbath supper, and how kind it was of her to think of me.

Robin and I had met a year and a half ago as first- semester graduate students in a master of fine arts program that required us to be on campus one week each semester.

That week, we often ate meals together and discussed our family lives and our hopes as writers. But on Friday night she looked gloomy as she settled in on the other side of the cafeteria table.

"Is something wrong?" I asked.

"It's the beginning of Sabbath. My family is sharing challah bread and lighting our candles."

"Please, tell me more." I said. What would you be doing?"

"We start by lighting the candles, but since striking a match is work, we hide the act," she answered. Robin shielded her eyes and pretended to strike a match. "And we recite prayers in Hebrew."

Robin explained her Friday-evening celebration, how the ritual united her family and linked them with their ancestors.

We finished our dinner, and she smiled. "Thank you," she said. "It helped to talk about it. I almost felt like I was home."

"Thank you," I replied, "for giving me a glimpse into your world."

When the residency ended, we exchanged e-mail addresses and, during the following months, exchanged news of our families and prayer requests.

This past fall, when we again gathered for our residency, Robin and I once more dined together on Friday evening, and I gave her eight candles to take home.

"For your menorah," I said. "You told me last year that Hanukkah gifts should be simple and homemade. I like that."

Although Robin discovered that the tapers were too large for her menorah, she wrote that her family lit them on Friday evenings, which pleased me very much.

So as I folded Robin's dish towel on Monday, I cherished her Purim gift and wished I could fill the towel with something special that represented my spring rituals and send it back. After all, a good neighbor never returns a cookie tin or casserole dish empty.

I glanced at the beeswax Easter egg candles I was creating, but they represented my faith, and I already had given her candles.

Gazing across our pond, I saw that steam billowed from the cupola of our sugarhouse, where my husband was boiling sap. I could send a jug of maple syrup, I thought, but it might leak. Then I knew: Maple cream candy would travel well.

Out came a pot, my candy thermometer, and a wooden paddle. The syrup bubbled and when the temperature reached 234 degrees F., I went outside, placed the pan in snow and stirred until the sticky mass turned creamy.

Last night I wrapped a plastic tub of maple cream candy in Robin's blue-checked linen cloth and snuggled it in a box. I'll mail it tomorrow so that the box will arrive during Purim.

While I savor the last of the poppy-seed pastries, Robin can taste the sweetness of my northern spring.

Hamantaschen

1-1/2 cups (3 sticks) butter or margarine, softened
1 cup white sugar
2 eggs
6 tablespoons orange juice
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons baking powder
4-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 can (12 ounces) poppy seed filling or 2/3 cup thick preserves (any flavor)

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until light and smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time and then stir in the orange juice and vanilla. Blend in the baking powder and then gradually stir in the flour until the dough forms a ball.

Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours. Overnight is better.

Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Divide the dough in thirds and work with one-third at a time, keeping the rest refrigerated.

On a well-floured surface, roll the dough out to 1/8-inch thick. Using a round cookie cutter or a glass dipped in flour, cut 3-inch circles. (Return leftover scraps of dough to refrigerator, to be cut again when chilled.)

Place the circles on one of the prepared cookie sheets, 1 inch apart. Refrigerate 10 to 15 minutes while preheating oven to 375 degrees F. (See note at end.)

Remove from refrigerator and spoon 1 level measuring teaspoon of filling or preserves onto the center of each circle. Then pinch the sides of each circle to form a triangle. (You're making a tricorn hat shape.)

Bake for 10 to 13 minutes, until cookies are a light golden color. Do not overbake. Cool on the baking sheet for 30 seconds before removing to wire racks to cool completely.

Note: The step of refrigerating the circles before forming the cookies helps the dough retain its shape when baked. If you don't care too much about the perfect shape, it's fine to shape and bake the cookies without this step. They will still taste great.

Makes about 36 to 48 cookies.

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