South African immigrant brings Israel the traditional Purim pastry of his youth

An immigrant baker is adding a homespun ingredient to a traditional festival pastry that he feels has long been missing from the country’s Purim palette.

“When we grew up in South Africa we only knew one kind of hamantasch,” says Les Saidel, owner of Saidel’s Artisan Bakery in Karnei Shomron, a West Bank town with hundreds of Anglo families. “Why not resuscitate the hamantaschen of our youth?”

The 46-year-old former computer programmer, who immigrated from Johannesburg in 1985, claims to produce Israel’s only South African-style hamantaschen.

For next week’s observance of the Jewish festival – marking the deliverance of the Jews of ancient Persia – he is producing between 600 and 800 pieces of the traditional three-cornered pastries.

“In South Africa, it was mahn [poppy seed] or cream cheese fillings,” says Saidel, who is joined in the four-year-old family business by his wife and mother, whose own grandmother first brought the recipe with her from Russia in 1904. “But we are a parve [non-dairy] establishment, so we substitute vanilla custard for the cream cheese.”

According to Saidel, South African hamantaschen differ from the conventional cookie version of the treat. Its dough is made of yeast, and must therefore be given time to rise; and its size is two to three times larger, with each side measuring 14 centimeters. There is also a price differential: Saidel’s South African hamantaschen cost five shekels a piece.

“It’s a big job,” says Saidel, who earned a certificate in the craft of handmade artisan baking from the California-based San Francisco Baking Institute following a 25-year career in hi-tech. “Mixing the dough and putting it into the oven is a 24-hour process.”

What emerges from Saidel’s custom-built masonry oven – made of century-old, imported Belgian bricks – is a cake-like pastry with a moist inner filling, recalling European-style sweet babkas or coffee cakes.

“My bubbe used to make it at home,” says Felicia Wedcliffe of Ramat Beit Shemesh, and a native of Johannesburg who immigrated in 2008, recalling her Lithuanian-born grandmother.

Wedcliffe has ordered 20 hamantaschen from Saidel’s, which also boasts an ethnic baked goods menu catering to the varied Anglo communities of Beit Shemesh, Ramat Beit Shemesh and Ra’anana.

“We provide a variety of ethnic baked goods which are mostly unavailable from any other source in Israel,” says Saidel, whose “authentic” products include “New York deli rye bread” and bialys – a round dough roll with an indentation in the center, containing minced onion or garlic, that is popular among Jews of Ashkenazi extraction.

“Cookie dough does not work for us,” Wedcliffe says of her preferred hamantasch. “It would be just another cookie, nothing special.”

Wedcliffe will include a hamantasch in the mishloach manot, or traditional festival gift baskets, that she is preparing “only for those who will appreciate them” – a group that includes some of her South African friends and her American in-laws. The rest, she admits, she freezes until Passover.

“I hoard them,” Wedcliffe confides. “I save them for my children. It’s really good stuff.”


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