Festival of Lights brings traditional foods to the table

December 8, 2023

Yesterday at sundown marked the start of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah (sometimes spelled Chanukah) that will continue for a total of eight nights. One central tradition associated with Hanukkah (which means “dedication”) is the lighting of a specially designed candelabra known as a menorah. The holiday commemorates the recovery of the Temple in Jerusalem, and despite having just enough oil to burn for a single night, the supply lasted for eight.

Other names for the celebration include the Festival of Lights, for the miracle of the long-burning wicks, and the Miracle of the Oil. The latter is sometimes offered as an explanation for why so many foods on the menu for Hanukkah are those that have been cooked in oil, most notably the round, jelly-filled doughnuts called sufganiyot. Their flavor includes a sweet burst from the fruit filling, and the texture is a cross between a beignet and a raised doughnut.

Another favorite dish associated with Hanukkah is the fried potato cake called latke. It is not likely that potatoes were a common food during the time of the original miracle in the Temple, since potatoes weren’t widely available in Eastern Europe until the mid-18th century. A series of crop failures in Poland and the Ukraine led to mass planting of potatoes, which were easy and cheap to grow. But before potatoes were a common crop, the latke of choice was made with cheese.

The first connection between Hanukkah and pancakes was made by Rabbi Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, who lived in Italy in the 13th century. According to food historians, he was responsible for describing the ricotta-based fried pancake as a dish to be served during Hanukkah. Eventually, the potato version became more popular, and Jewish immigrants brought their recipes to the United States.

One key feature about latkes is their texture. Unlike potato pancakes, which have a creamy, mashed-potato-like center with a golden exterior, latkes have a deeply browned crust with wispy, lacy edges. In order to create this unique texture, avoid commercial potato pancake mixes, which can be quite dense. Begin with grated russet potatoes, seasoned with onions and bound with some matzo meal. Be generous with the oil and make sure the batter isn’t too thick.

Another menu item often served during Hanukkah is matzo ball soup, which can assume a wide range of guises. Some places make what I could consider to be chicken noodle soup and add a few matzo balls. Instead of a simple, flavorful broth surrounding the fluffy matzo balls, you’re given a bowl full of carrots, onions, celery and perhaps chicken in addition to (often overly large) matzo balls.

Although I will use the vegetables in making my broth, I prefer to strain out the cooked pieces and then add the matzo balls to simmer and absorb the rich broth. Matzo balls can be described as either sinkers or floaters. Just as their name implies, sinkers have a dense texture and usually rest on the bottom of your bowl. Floaters have the more desirable fluffiness that allows them to swim around the surface. If you want to disguise the exact nature of your matzo balls and allow their flavor to carry the day, use shallow bowls.I’ve included recipes for traditional potato latkes, Tori Avey’s ricotta cheese latkes and matzo ball soup. Happy Hanukkah.

Potato Latkes

2 russet potatoes*
1 onion
1 egg
1 egg yolk
2 T matzo meal
1/2 t salt
1/4 t white pepper
oil for frying

Peel the potatoes and grate into a dishtowel-lined colander using the large side of a box grater. Peel the onion and grate into the colander with the potatoes. Using a wooden spoon, press on the potato-onion mixture to drain off moisture; twist together the ends of the towel to wring out any remaining liquid. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together egg, egg yolk, matzo meal, salt and pepper. Add the drained potatoes and onion; fold to thoroughly combine. Lightly cover the bottom of a large skillet with a thin layer of oil and place over medium heat. Form latkes by scooping up 2 T of batter with a spatula and press into a circle in the skillet; repeat until the skillet is filled with a single layer of latkes. Cook until browned and crisp, about 3 minutes; turn over latkes and cook another 3 minutes. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate and cover loosely with foil to keep warm. Repeat until all the batter has been cooked, replenishing oil as needed. Serve warm with sour cream or applesauce. Yield: 18 latkes. *Note: substitute 2 C packaged grated potatoes or thawed frozen grated potatoes.

Ricotta Cheese Latkes*

1 C ricotta cheese
3/4 C flour
3 large eggs
2 T sugar
1 t salt
1/2 t baking powder

Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor. Process for about 45 seconds, pausing to scrape down the sides, until the mixture forms a thick batter. Coat a nonstick skillet with cooking spray and heat over medium. Spoon tablespoons of batter into the skillet, spreading the batter into a thin, 2-inch circle. Fry the latkes for 2-3 minutes on each side until they turn golden brown. Serve immediately topped with sour cream or jam. Yield: 18 latkes. *Adapted from Tori Avey, The Shiksa in the Kitchen.

Matzo Ball Soup

3/4 C matzo meal
1 t toasted onion bits
1/4 t baking soda
1 t salt
3 eggs
2 T melted butter
1 T seltzer water
1 T minced parsley
2 T olive oil
1 diced onion
3 chopped carrots
3 chopped celery stalks
1/2 C white wine
8 C chicken broth
bay leaf
salt & pepper, to taste

In a large mixing bowl, combine matzo meal, onion, baking soda and salt; set aside. In another bowl, whisk together eggs, melted butter, seltzer water and parsley. Pour the wet ingredients into the matzo meal and stir until evenly combined. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. While the matzo mixture rests, heat the olive oil in a large soup pot over medium. Add onions, carrots and celery; sauté until softened, about 10 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the white wine, scraping up any browned bits. Add chicken broth and bay leaf; simmer for about 20 minutes. Adjust seasoning to taste with salt and pepper; remove bay leaf. Process the broth through a food mill to remove any vegetable chunks. Return strained broth to the stove and bring to a simmer over medium. Roll the matzo mixture into 1-inch balls and add to broth. Cover and cook for 25 minutes. To serve, place two or three matzo balls in each soup bowl and ladle in broth. 

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