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A Case for Tradition

Last winter, while tucking into blintzes and borscht at our favorite greasy spoon in Manhattan’s East Village, my husband and I struck up a conversation with an older man sitting down the counter from us. He was a classic Woody Allen-era New Yorker: oversized glasses, rumpled shirt and a thick Brooklyn accent — sociable enough, but with an edge of loneliness.

We chatted about the weather and the inevitable disappointment of the Mets’ upcoming season, enjoying our brush with old-time Jewish New York. And as we gathered up our coats to leave, I asked his name. “Simon Fischer,” he said, with a knowing look. “You know, like the prune butter.” We didn’t know. What was the connection between this fellow and a slightly passé fruit preserve? But, this being Manhattan, we were rushing off to somewhere and did not take time to ask for elaboration.

It was not until months later, while in the jam aisle at a supermarket, that I saw it: a stout glass jar wrapped in a blue label with the words “Simon Fischer Prune Butter” emblazoned in yellow on the front. I had stood in front of that jam display many times and had never seen the prune butter, though clearly it had been there all along. Noticing it now, and thinking of our own Simon Fischer existing somewhere out there in our big, shared city, made me a little wistful. I bought the jar.

On the trip home, I started thinking about Purim. Prune butter, also called lekvar, is a thick, sweet preserve typically made from dried plums. The word lekvar can also refer to fruit butters made from apricots, apples or peaches, but it usually refers to prunes. Popular across Central and Eastern Europe, particularly Slovakia and Hungary, prune butter is a common ingredient in many pastries, from the Ashkenazic layered pastry fluden to rugelach. And, as all long-time hamantaschen eaters will attest, it is one of the three most iconic fillings for Purim’s tri-cornered cookie, along with poppy seed, or mon, and apricot jam.

Truthfully, I never particularly liked prune-filled hamantaschen — or most traditional hamantaschen flavors, for that matter. They all just seemed so quaint and uninspired. I suppose the crumbly, yellow triangles filled with hyper-sweet canned pastes that passed for hamantaschen during my childhood in the 1980s also played a part in shaping my distaste. For years I avoided eating hamantaschen entirely. But as an adult I learned to make my own, starting with homemade dough and then filling the pockets with more contemporary flavors, like pear and ginger compote, Nutella swirled with almond butter, or chunks of white chocolate and raspberry jam. At a hamantaschen-making party a couple of years ago, my guests and I ditched the sweet stuff completely, adding dried herbs to the dough, and stuffing the center with a savory mix of sautéed onions, mushrooms and cheddar cheese.

Still, as delicious as these unorthodox fillings are, there is always a case to be made for tradition — perhaps not an ersatz, highly processed replica of tradition, but tradition the way it was originally intended. So, while prune hamantaschen are not a part of my own Purim nostalgia, they are worth revisiting. That’s where Simon Fischer comes in.

Thinking back on it, it is unlikely that the rumpled gentleman at the diner had any connection with Simon Fischer Prune Butter, aside from the coincidence of a shared name. The brand is owned and distributed by Sokol & Company in Countryside, Ill., 20 miles southwest of Chicago. Originally founded in 1907 by an immigrant from Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), today the company represents an eclectic mix of commercial food products under its own line, Solo, and other brand names — including Simon Fischer, which it acquired in the mid-1980s. Still, for my husband and me, the coincidence of that shared name led to something wonderful and delicious.

Simon Fischer’s prune butter, which I sampled straight from the jar, was smooth and full of rich flavor. I noticed, however, that the ingredient list contained corn syrup, surely a modern, industrial addition to traditional lekvar. So, in efforts to merge this exploration in tradition with my contemporary preference for things artisanal over artificial, I made my own prune butter (recipe at right). The resulting lekvar was deep and complex, a sweet, spice-kissed fruit paste that came together in a half-hour. And the scent that filled my kitchen — prunes simmering with ginger, cinnamon and orange zest — felt simultaneously Old World and entirely contemporary.

After years of avoiding anything that whiffed of tradition on Purim, the experience of meeting Simon Fischer (in both person and jar form) and making lekvar completely reinvigorated my interest in prune hamantaschen — enough so that I may even skip the Nutella entirely this year. So Simon, wherever you are in 2011, this one’s for you.

Leah Koenig writes a monthly column for the Forward on food and culinary trends. Contact her at [email protected]

Prune Lekvar

1½ cup pitted dried prunes, roughly chopped

2⁄3 cup water

3 tablespoons orange juice

2 tablespoons honey

¼ teaspoon orange zest (to taste)

¼ teaspoon ginger powder

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

¼ cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon honey

1. Put all ingredients except brown sugar and honey in a medium saucepan set over medium-high heat; stir gently to combine. Bring to a simmer then reduce heat to low; cover pot and cook until prunes soften, about 20 minutes. Uncover and let cook until water evaporates, about 2 minutes.

2. Remove from heat and, while still warm, mash with a fork or potato masher until desired consistency is reached. Stir in brown sugar and honey until dissolved. Store in an airtight container in fridge until ready to use.

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