When we think of Hanukkah food, the first thing that comes to mind is crispy, golden potato latkes. We're told foods fried in oil remind us of the miracle of the oil that lasted for many days.
Dec. 8 at sundown begins the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights. Jews will light a candle in the menorah each night for eight days to commemorate the miracle that occurred when the Maccabees defeated their oppressors, who were trying to make the Jews give up their religion.
But in many countries, Hanukkah is celebrated with salty cheese. There is another, lesser known, Hanukkah story: that of Judith and the Assyrian army, recorded in the apocryphal Book of Judith. The pious Jewish widow infiltrated enemy lines and cut off the head of the Assyrian general, Holoferenes, while he was in a drunken stupor. Judith charmed her way into the enemy camp with a basket of cheese and wine. The story tells that she "filled a bag with roasted barley, cakes of dried figs and several loaves of bread baked according to Jewish food laws. Yet she refused to eat any of the food offered her by the Assyrians, saying, "I cannot eat your food, for I would be breaking the laws of my God. I have more than enough food to last until the Lord has used me to carry out his plan."
Zucchini potato latkes
(Photo — Yvona Fast)
According to tradition, the salty cheese made Holoferenes thirsty, so he drank a lot of wine. Judith then cut off his head and brought it back to her besieged town. When the Assyrians realized their general was dead, they dispersed.
This story is tied to another, if lesser known, tradition: the eating of dairy foods at Hanukkah. The custom is more common among Sephardic Jews of southern Europe. Many eat blintzes, cheesecake, kugel, quiche and other dishes based on cheese, making a dairy meal part of the Hanukkah celebration. Sephardic Jews feast on "Bunuelos de queso," Sephardic-style cheese fritters made with eggs, flour and a salty dry cheese such as Greek mizithra, ricotta salata or even farmer's cheese. "Savillum" are traditional Roman cheesecakes made with ricotta, eggs, flour and honey that are also part of Sephardic Hanukkah fare. Around this time in history (200 BC), sweet cheesecakes were an important part of religious services and were widely known, writes Joan Nathan in "Joan Nathan's Jewish Holiday Cookbook." They were probably made with cheese, eggs, honey and flour.
By the Middle Ages, pancakes fried in oil were common Hanukkah fare. Potatoes were unknown in the Old World, so potato latkes were not added to Hanukkah celebrations until the 17th or 18th century.
Sweet noodle kugels are made by combining cottage cheese, sour cream and noodles, then baking in a casserole. A Romanian tradition fries the noodle pudding, thus also using the oil that is an essential part of the holiday feast.
Rugelach, traditional cookies, are made with cream cheese-based dough and nuts. These are also a traditional dairy holiday treat. Other dairy meal menu items can include Chili Con Queso, ricotta latkes, fruit salad, greens salad and an assortment of pretzels, cookies and desserts.
To combine both traditions, add zucchini and cheese to your fried latkes. Or use dairy latke toppings: not just sour cream but spicier, yogurt-based sauces like Greek tzatziki sauce or Indian raita.
Zucchini Potato Latkes
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 large onion
1 medium zucchini
2 medium potatoes
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup flour, potato starch or matzo meal
Oil for frying
In bowl, beat eggs with salt and pepper. Peel and finely mince onion, and add. Grate the zucchini and squeeze out as much water as possible. (Reserve for making soup later.) Grate potatoes into the mixture, and stir in the cheese. Add minced fresh parsley and enough flour for the mixture to hold together.
Heat oil in large skillet. Drop tablespoonfuls of the zucchini-potato mixture into the hot oil. Cook until crispy and golden brown on the outside with a creamy soft interior.
4 large eggs
1 pound cottage, pot, or ricotta cheese, or combination
2 tablespoons sour cream
1 to 2 tablespoons honey, sugar or maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract or ground cinnamon
1/2 cup biscuit mix (or flour, add 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon baking powder)
Vegetable oil or butter for frying
Beat the eggs until thick and creamy. Beat in the cheese and remaining ingredients. OR, in a blender or food processor, puree everything until smooth.
Heat a large skillet or griddle over medium heat. Lightly grease with oil or butter.
Drop heaping tablespoonfuls of batter on the griddle. Cook until bubbles form on the top and the bottoms are lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Flip over with a spatula to brown other side. To keep warm while you cook the rest, place on a cookie sheet in a single layer in a 200-degree oven. Serve topped with maple syrup or jam.
In batches, drop the batter by heaping tablespoonfuls, and fry until bubbles form on the tops and the bottoms are lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes.
Turn and fry until golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. (The pancakes may be kept warm by placing in a single layer on a baking sheet in a 200-degree oven.) Serve with sour cream, yogurt, maple syrup, flavored butter, jam, cinnamon-sugar or fresh fruit.
Sweet Noodle Kugel (Lukshen kugel)
A sweet and creamy dessert treat
12 oz. egg noodles
3/4 cup maple syrup or honey (more if you like it sweeter)
16 oz. container cottage cheese
2 cups sour cream (or 1 cup each sour cream and plain yogurt)
Fruit and nuts to total 2 to 3 cups: pineapple chunks, diced peeled apples, slivered almonds, chopped walnuts, orange sections, raisins, prunes, etc. If using dried fruit, place them in water to plump up while you cook the noodles and beat the ingredients.
Cinnamon and sugar for dusting the top
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add noodles and cook according to package directions until "al dente." Drain and set aside.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.
Beat the eggs in a large bowl. Beat in maple syrup, cottage cheese and sour cream. (You can also do this in a blender or food processor). The mixture should be thick and creamy.
Fold in cooked noodles, fruit and nuts.
Pour the kugel into the pan. Sprinkle with a little sugar and cinnamon.
Bake until it is set in the center and the tips of the noodles turn golden brown, 45 to 60 minutes.
Let the kugel rest for 15 to 20 minutes before slicing. Cut into squares, and serve. Kugel can be served warm or cold.
Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com.