Hanukkah observance includes delicious traditional foods

December 16, 2022
Sundown on Sunday marks the start of the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, the eight-day “festival of lights.” The word Hanukkah (also spelled Chanukah) means “dedication” in Hebrew and refers to events in the year 165 BC, when the Maccabees successfully revolted against the Macedonian monarchy and recaptured their temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish faithful cleansed the space and rededicated it by lighting a specially designed candelabra known as a menorah.
Early texts recount the rebellion, the recovery of the temple and rededication ceremony, but references to the “miracle” connected to Hanukkah do not appear until nearly 600 years later, when we hear that the available supply of consecrated oil for the menorah would have lasted only a single day, and yet, this small amount kept the wicks burning for eight days.
Hanukkah is sometimes called the Miracle of the Oil, and that explains the holiday tradition of eating foods cooked in oil. Since the potato wasn’t known in Eastern Europe or the Mediterranean region until the 16th century, why does the potato latke take center stage on the menu? Originally, the foods fried in oil for Hanukkah were limited to what was regionally available, usually a form of sweetened dough. This is seen in the traditional sufganiyot, a round, jelly-filled donut that is very popular during Hanukkah.
Potatoes didn’t become widely available in Eastern Europe until the late 18th century, when failing grain crops were replaced with the hardy, nutritious tuber. As the Jewish population grew during the 19th century, they developed a wide range of dishes featuring potatoes, including potato latkes. Jewish immigrants brought their culinary traditions to this country, and recipes for latkes appeared in several cookbooks of the early 20th century. 
Although latkes are easily made from just a few ingredients, commercial potato pancake mixes from brands such as Aunt Jemima, Manischewitz and Streits quickly appeared. These are a less-than-ideal replacement for the homemade variety, with results more closely resembling a fried disk of mashed potatoes rather than a true latke. Do not succumb to the perceived convenience of a mix, as the results will not be like the golden, lacy specimens in the photo (courtesy of Kaisy’s Delights in Lewes).
The typical recipe includes potato, onion, matzo meal and egg. As time-consuming as it is to grate the raw potatoes and onions, this is the signature process to ensure a lovely latke. A few tablespoons of matzo meal will bind the batter as well as add better taste and texture than the oft-substituted bread crumbs or flour. If you are in a bit of a hurry and want to skip the grating step, a package of shredded potatoes from the dairy aisle or some defrosted shredded Ore-Idas from the freezer section of your grocer could be substituted. 
No matter the source for your potatoes, you’ll need to be patient while they shed most of their water content or you’ll have messy sizzle and spatter when they hit the oil. I like to line a colander with a clean dishtowel and literally wring out the moisture. Be sure to keep the bottom of the skillet coated with a thin layer of oil while frying to ensure a crispy crust. Although some like applesauce with their latkes, we prefer them served with dollops of sour cream. I’ve included my favorite latke recipe, and I suggest purchasing sufganiyot, rather than making them at home. Happy Hanukkah!
2 russet potatoes*
1 small 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 pressing into a circle. Place in the skillet and 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. Store leftovers in a sealed container in the refrigerator. To reheat, place in a single layer on a foil-lined cookie sheet and bake for 10 minutes at 425 F. *Note: substitute 2 C packaged grated potatoes or thawed frozen grated potatoes.

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