When my grandmother, Mama Hinda, died at age 91 in 1976, I crept upstairs into her tiny apartment and took the things that meant the most to me: her large stirring spoons from Europe, her white enamel pot in which she had kept the cookies “hidden” in the linen closet, her glass candy dish that had held chunks of super-sized Hershey’s chocolate (three bars for a dollar in those days) and her latke frying pan.
Mama and Papa lived upstairs from us in the two-family house Papa had built in Belle Harbor, New York. When I think of the Chanukahs of my childhood, it’s not the presents I remember, but the tastes, smells and sounds: Mama’s latkes sizzling in that pan to the strains of her ever-present Yiddish radio station, blaring louder and louder as they became more hard of hearing.
What are holidays if not the passing of traditions from one generation to the next? Using her pan to fry Chanukah latkes, those crispy, addictive potato pancakes, as I do every year, I commune with Mama Hinda and recall how the smells wafting through the house would beckon my brother and me upstairs to bench licht (light candles) with them. If they gave us a present at all, it was probably gelt (most certainly not a high denomination). Then, oh, those latkes, eagerly scarfed down by the handful, were reward enough.
But Chanukah is all about the oil, not the potato. While Jews of Eastern European descent eat mountains of latkes, in Israel the Chanukah treat is sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts). All through the Middle East, yeast fritters known by many names are fried and then dipped in sugar syrup.
So prepare for an oil crisis (and I don’t mean the price of gas). Who knew when Judah Maccabee’s tiny flask of oil miraculously burned for eight days that for thousands of years Jewish families would celebrate by frying!
A lesser known Chanukah tradition involves the eating of cheese to commemorate another miracle, this from the Apocrypha, involving Judith, a beautiful and brave widow, who plied the Assyrian general Holofernes with salty cheese and wine, causing him to fall into a drunken stupor, and then beheaded him with his own sword.
Why celebrate this miracle on Chanukah? While we don’t know exactly when it occurred, some rabbis placed this event during the Maccabean revolt and held that Judith was a direct descendant of the Hasmonean (Maccabean) dynasty. But why quibble? Any holiday tradition that encourages the eating of cheesecake is A-OK in my book!
Who says traditional potato latkes are the only fritter fit to fry? This recipe is adapted from one I found in a novel, Sharon Boorstin’s irresistible romp, Cookin’ For Love (chick-lit for the 49-year-old-plus set…with recipes, of course). Cashews! Ginger! This is a latke with pizzazz! Especially good with a yogurt sauce such as tzatziki.
½ cup chopped unsalted cashews or peanuts
¼ cup chopped mint or flat-leaf parsley, or a combination
¼ cup finely chopped red bell pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped jalapeño pepper, seeded and deveined
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
1½ to 2 teaspoons kosher (coarse) salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon curry powder
2 large eggs, beaten
2 large baking potatoes (12 ounces each), cut into wedges
1 medium-size onion, coarsely chopped
¼ cup all-purpose flour
Vegetable oil, for frying
1 Combine cashews, mint, bell pepper, jalapeño, ginger, salt, curry powder and eggs in large bowl; mix well. Set aside.
2 Shred potatoes and onion together in food processor fitted with shredding disk. Squeeze between several changes of paper towels to release as much liquid as possible. Add potato/onion mixture to egg mixture and combine well. Stir in flour.
3 Pour enough oil into a large, heavy skillet to cover bottom; heat over medium-high heat. When oil is quite hot but not smoking, add scant ¼ cup batter per latke and flatten with fork. Fry only as many latkes as will fit in the skillet without crowding. Cook until crisp and brown, 2 to 3 minutes on each side. Transfer latkes to paper towels to drain. Keep warm while frying remainder. Serve immediately. Makes about 16.
Smoked Salmon Cheesecake
I found this elegant appetizer in Sheilah Kaufman’s Simply Irresistible: Easy, Elegant, Fearless, Fussless Kosher Recipes from Around the World. It can be served warm, at room temperature or cold. Spread it on bagels, bread, crackers or even fresh vegetables.
Solid vegetable shortening or vegetable cooking spray
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
½ cup minced onion
3 packages (8 ounces each) cream cheese, at room temperature
4 large eggs, at room temperature
¼ cup half-and-half
¼ cup chopped fresh dill, or 2 tablespoons dried dill
4 ounces Swiss cheese, grated
8 ounces smoked Nova Scotia salmon, diced
1 Preheat oven to 300°F. Grease a 9-inch springform pan with shortening or cooking spray. Wrap sheet of aluminum foil over bottom and about two-thirds up sides of pan to prevent leakage while baking.
2 Heat oil in small saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and cook until soft and golden, about 4 minutes. Allow to cool slightly.
3 Meanwhile, place cream cheese, eggs and half-and-half in mixing bowl and cream with electric mixer on medium speed until well blended. Add sautéed onion, dill, Swiss cheese and salmon and mix on low speed or with spatula until all ingredients are incorporated.
4 Pour mixture into prepared pan, smoothing to form even layer. Place filled springform pan in baking pan large enough to hold it comfortably. Carefully pour boiling water into baking pan to reach halfway up sides of springform pan. Bake 45 minutes; then turn off oven and leave cheesecake in oven until thoroughly cooled, 1 to 2 hours.
5 Store cheesecake, covered with plastic wrap and then wrapped in aluminum foil, in refrigerator up to 5 days. Or freeze it, wrapped well in plastic wrap and then in foil, for up to 2 months; thaw overnight in refrigerator before removing plastic wrap and serving. Remove springform sides just before serving. Serves 10 to 14
Recipes from Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family (Workman) by Judy Bart Kancigor