Now commonly seen – at least in America and Europe — as a sweet and innocent event for the enjoyment of children, in the past Purim was once quite different. For the Jews of 16th and 17th century Italy, the holiday was a quite an extravagant affair, celebrated (in the wealthier homes) with close to 30 course dinners accompanied with profuse quantities of wine. Dinner guests donned costumes and masks, inspiring the modern tradition of children playing dress up for the holiday. Several historians cite the celebrations of Carnival, the days up to lent which take place around the same time as Purim, as inspiration for these fests of gluttony.
Wearing costumes and masks while intoxicated was obviously bound to encourage all kinds of inappropriate behaviors, from promiscuous contact with non-Jews to episodes of violence. Still, some prominent rabbis of the time viewed all the wine and merrymaking as central to the spirit of the holiday, and went as far as to allow normally “taboo” activities, even mixed dancing.
But the most memorable and wide-spread excesses were always at the table: several Italian Purim songs from the time describee the lucullan menus and the lavish wine lists in the wealthier homes. The festive meal could last hours with the many courses alternating between sweet and savory dishes, often accompanied by theatrical performances. At the end of the banquet, the highlight of the “Carnival of the Jews” (as it was often called) was always dessert, with dozens of different sweets, from iced sponge cakes to pastries to almond-based bon-bons.
The culinary symbol of the holiday, however, was one specific type of treat, called “Orecchie di Aman” (Haman’s Ears). The name is now also used in certain Italian communities to described hamantaschen, but traditionally it referred to thin rectangles of dough, “pinched” or folded at the top to resemble a pointy animal ear, or curled up in a more human ear shape. The scrumptious dough is fried in olive oil and sprinkled with sugar. What tastier proof of the link between Purim and Carnival than the similarity between this recipe and the Carnival “frappe’ (or “crostoli” depending on the region)? But the shape of the Jewish version of this fried pastry takes us back to the sinister symbolism of the holiday: as a descendant of Amalek, Haman represents ultimate evil in the Jewish tradition, and there is a commandment to blot out his memory. The practice of eating the evil minister’s virtual ears satisfies this in a delectable way.
Buon Purim, and Buon Appetito….
Orecchie di Aman
¼ cup sugar
2 ¾ cups flour
a pinch of salt
4 tablespoons grappa, rum or marsala
3 tablespoons milk (or rice milk or orange juice for a parve version)
¼ cup butter (or 3 tablespoons very mild olive oil or seed oil for parve)
mild olive oil or seed oil for frying
confectioner’s sugar to decorate
1) Sift the flour with salt and form a well on your working surface.
2) Add the softened butter, the eggs, the sugar and the liqueur. Knead well with your hands until smooth and elastic. If it’s not soft enough, add little milk or juice; if it’s too soft, add a little flour. Allow to rest covered for 15 minutes.
3) Roll very thin with a rolling pin (you can also use a pasta machine to make sheets of dough). With a sharp knife, cut into rectangles about 3”x5”, and pinch the two top corners together to give them the shape of a pointy animal ear. You can also simply cut the dough into tall triangles with slightly curved sides, like a donkey’s ear, or make thinner stripes (about 1” x 5”) and twirl them slightly to shape into a more human-looking ear.
4) Heat abundant oil in a large pan with tall sides, and wait until when a small piece of bread dropped into the oil begins to sizzle.
5) Fry the “orecchie” in several batches, few at a time, until light gold, approximately 1-2 minutes.
6) Remove with a slotted spoon and drain well on triple layers of paper towel. Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar and serve accompanied by a sparkling white wine.