Our leprechaun, better known as Mike Ryan, is an expert when it comes to making hamantashen. And well he should be, for he has been doing it for 15 years.
Ryan is the owner of Michael's Bakery, 6635 Castor Ave., which he has operated since 1976. And he is proud to say that he has one of the few kosher bakeries in the area.
So what's a nice Irish boy doing owning and running a Jewish bakery? A kosher one at that?
"Actually, it all goes back about 15 years," says Ryan, smiling an impish grin and sporting a T-shirt with a green leprechaun superimposed over a green shamrock. "I was a product supervisor for the Bond bread company, and my wife was expecting twins. I figured that I better go get a part-time job."
What Ryan did was apply for a job at what was then called Lipton's Bakery. Ryan and the Lipton family became friends.
"I was 26 years old and had worked for them for four years on a part-time basis. Then the owner, Ben Lipton, got sick and asked me to take over the business. I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me.' But he taught me the kosher line and he taught me how to bake. He helped me out and did everything he possibly could do for me. All of a sudden, I was in business."
Ryan took over the bakery March 21, 1976, just four days after St. Patrick's Day. When St. Patrick's Day rolled around the following year, however, Mike couldn't resist. He made 15 dozen green bagels. They were such a big hit that he now makes about 300 dozen green bagels each year - plus green cream cheese to go with them.
"The first couple of years, we didn't make the cream cheese," Ryan said. ''Then, all of a sudden, everybody said, 'Where's the cream cheese?' so we dyed the cream cheese green and sold them in these attractive containers."
Although Michael's Bakery is not the only kosher bakery in the Philadelphia area, it's got to be the only one that makes green bagels and green cream cheese for St. Patrick's Day and simultaneously services 17 synagogues.
This year, Purim and St. Patrick's Day are only three days apart, so Ryan is busy gearing up for both.
For St. Patrick's Day - the feast of the man who was the second bishop of the Emerald Isle - Ryan's place takes on an ecumenical appearance. His ovens are busy turning out cupcakes decorated with leprechauns, Irish soda bread and various baked goods laced with such Irish decorations as shamrocks and Erin Go Bragh flags.
Purim is the celebration commemorating a Jewish victory that took place more than 23 centuries ago. Under Persian domination, the Jewish people were threatened with annihilation when an evil chamberlain, Haman, devised a plot to kill them. The victory over Haman is celebrated with the reading of the scroll of Esther and with merriment and feasting.
Feasting includes eating hamantashen jammed with fruit, cheese or poppy seed filling. They are made in the shape of the hat of Haman.
But aside from the merriment of hamantashen and green bagels, Ryan has developed a kosher line, a dietetic line and baked goods for people with lactose sensitivity.
"We now make more than 30 different items in our dietetic line," he explained. "I created it about eight years ago along with a dietitian, and people can have them on a (diet) exchange plan. I even have sheets of paper with the different products listed and the exchanges."
The kosher dietary regulations of the bakery actually help in exercising strict control over dietetic products and nondairy baked goods that would be permissible fare for people who have a milk allergy.
"Our bowls that we use for making dairy products are painted on the outside," Ryan explained. "That's only one of the ways of checking. We have a lot of other checks. Finished dairy products are kept on yellow trays and parev (non-dairy, non-meat products) are on white trays.
"Our regular pies are made with two holes, and when we make a dietetic pie, we make it with one hole. Plain ones are square, diet ones are round. This way, a customer knows exactly."
Though Ryan has always run Michael's as a Jewish bakery, it was not Orthodox kosher until two years ago, when a rabbi began popping in every day to check things out. The supervising rabbi at Michael's is Rabbi Dov A. Brisman.
It's easy to understand how Ryan's kosher bakery can sell loads of hamantashen. But how does this kosher Jewish bakery in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood manage to sell so many green bagels on St. Patrick's Day?
"Actually," Ryan says, "St. Paddy's Day would generally be nothing in a Jewish neighborhood, but I've managed to turn it into one of the biggest holidays of the year here.
"The holiday is actually pretty much like Purim. It's a a fun holiday. We all wear green hats and though we normally open at 8 a.m., on St. Paddy's Day we open at 6 in the morning for the convenience of people going to work.
"What happens is that an Irish guy buys (the green bagels) for a Jewish guy, and a Jewish guy buys them for an Irish guy. Half of them probably never even get eaten anyway.
"It's a lot of work, especially around holidays, but I really enjoy this. Oh, there are times when we get really busy, or I become so disgusted with all the work - 12, 14 hours a day - that I end up selling the place twice a year.
"But I really have a responsibility. I remember when I first took the place over. The first week, Mr. Lipton bought my supplies for me, just so I could get started. He really had a lot of faith in me. He was like the old- time bakers, they still wanted to be a part of it. He didn't just want to turn it over to anybody. And I was there and he trusted me."
Ryan reflected for a moment.
"I just happened to come along at the right time," he said. "I guess you could call it the luck of the Irish."
Here are recipes for Irish soda bread and hamantashen. If it's green bagels you want, you'll have to see Mike Ryan.
IRISH SODA BREAD
1 1/4 cups unbleached flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 1/4 cups freshly stone-ground whole-wheat flour
1 cup buttermilk
In a large bowl, combine the unbleached flour, salt and soda with a wire whisk, making sure the soda is well blended. Stir in the whole wheat flour.
Make a well in the middle of the flour mixture and slowly pour in the buttermilk, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Work mixture until you get a smooth, stiff dough. If necessary, add a bit more buttermilk, but do not let the dough get sticky.
On a floured board, form a round, flattish loaf about 1 1/2 to 2 inches high. Transfer it to a lightly buttered baking sheet. Cut a half-inch-deep cross across the top and partially down the sides of the loaf to vent the heat. Cover and bake in a preheated, 425-degree oven for 40 minutes, or until the loaf is well risen and brown and sounds hollow when tapped. Cool on a wire rack for about 10 minutes. Serve while still warm. Makes about four servings. *
This recipe for hamantashen was distributed by Philadelphia's Lubavitch House.
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup oil
1/3 cup shortening
1/2 cup orange juice
4 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 pounds mohn (poppy seed) filling
1 egg, beaten
Cream sugar, oil and shortening. Add eggs and juice, and mix well. Blend with flour, baking powder and salt, and roll into a ball of dough. Divide ball into four parts. Roll out each very thin, approximately one-eighth inch, on a floured board.
With the rim of a cup or glass, cut into the dough to make circles. Place one-half to two-thirds teaspoon of the mohn filling in the middle of each circle.
To shape into a triangle, lift up the right and left sides of the circle, leaving the bottom side down, and have them meet at the center of the circle, pinching them together above the filling. Lift the bottom side up to the center, to meet the other two sides, and pinch together lightly.
Brush hamantashen with beaten egg, and place on a greased cookie sheet. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 20 minutes. Watch that hamantashen do not become too brown. Makes about four dozen.