Holiday is perfect time for 'Cooking Jewish'

At sundown Tuesday, Jewish families will continue a tradition. They will light the first candle on the menorah, a special candelabra. One additional candle is lit for each night of the eight-day celebration, called Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.

"One for each night, they shed a sweet light to remind us of days long ago," was a Hanukkah song of my childhood, etched into my brain.

Hanukkah, a joyous holiday, means dedication in Hebrew. It commemorates the rededication of the Temple, which was destroyed by Syrian-Greek oppressors. The Temple had been defiled and burned, and there was only enough consecrated olive oil to keep the menorah lit for one day. But a miracle occurred, and the oil lasted instead for eight days, until more consecrated oil became available.

Oil -- that's the thing about this holiday and its foods. They're fried in oil. You eat potato pancakes, called latkes, or jelly-filled doughnuts, called sufganiynot. Gifts are exchanged during Hanukkah, though not necessarily for all eight days.

According to rabbi and author Gil Marks ( "There is an ancient custom for parents to give their children Hanukkah gelt (money) and candy during the holiday; a tradition that in America evolved into the giving of presents."

In my family, the gelt is more often chocolate instead of the spending kind. My mother recently discovered dark-chocolate gelt; an improvement, we think.

This Hanukkah, if you're looking for a gift for your mother, new holiday recipes or just a great laugh, pick up a copy of Judy Bart Kancigor's new cookbook "Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family" (Workman, $19.95).

"Come in," Ms. Kancigor beckons from her book and introduces you to her mishpucha (extended family), their history and food. In a lively opener she repeats her three-minute rule. "Guests must get something to eat within the first three minutes of arrival or it's a shanda (shame in Yiddish). Come in. Give me your coat. Have a knish."

Symbolic knish warming my hand, I felt welcomed into Ms. Kancigor's world as I turned the pages. I laughed, I cried and I was transported into my own family food memories.

From the book I made a vegetable-packed chicken soup, light and flavorful shiitake mushroom matzoh balls, potato latkes, and chicken fricassee, a chicken stew with little beef meatballs. Chicken fricassee was one of my grandmother's best dishes, yet sadly, no one in my family had gotten the recipe. Ms. Kancigor's recipes for the fricassee and the soup are from her mother, Lillian Bart.

Getting the recipe, writing it down, not losing the memory is the whole idea behind this book, "4 1/2 years in the making," stuffed with family lore, food and photos.

"I wrote this book for my grandchildren," Ms. Kancigor told me in a recent interview from her friend's house in Allentown, Lehigh County.

"We were expecting our first grandchild, and my aunts were all dying off. I wanted to have a record of our family for our grandchildren. I wanted to include all those old recipes ... recipes for things no one makes anymore, because to me, a recipe is a historical document. You look at an old recipe and you see how people cooked in the shtetl" (small, Jewish villages in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe).

Ms. Kancigor grew up in Brooklyn. She lived with her parents in a two-family house. Her grandparents, Mama Hinda and Papa Harry Rabinowitz, lived upstairs. She was an English major, then a court reporter. She married, she raised her two sons, Stu and Brad. She looked forward to her grandchildren, who were the impetus for a self-published family cookbook. This small book took a surprising turn and became the large, charming, illustrated "Cooking Jewish."

For the recipes and stories Ms. Kancigor reached out to her mishpucha. As she writes, "The response was overwhelming. In-laws of in-laws begged to be in the cookbook. ... Anyone related to the Rabinowitzes by blood or marriage was eagerly welcomed."

In the book, you'll find recipes for Jewish specialties such as chopped liver, gefilte fish, brisket, tzimmes and kreplach. You'll find new twists on old favorites such as Roasted Beet Borsht, Easier Still "Unstuffed" Cabbage, Potato Blintz Souffle, Lox Quiche, and Sweet-and-Sour Kugel.

Kugel is a theme because Ms. Kancigor had so many kugel recipes that, even with 656 pages, some had to be cut. She tells the tale in a preface called "The Kugel Wars."

I'm glad that she found room for Romanian Salt and Pepper Lokshen Kugel from her husband's Grandma Becky. This is a savory noodle pudding (lokshen means noodles), while so many are sweet. Like many of the recipes, it has a great word portrait of the maker who is remembered in this way: "Grandma Becky was a phenomenal cook, but betting on the horses was her life."

As to Hanukkah, Ms. Kancigor has a recipe for potato latkes that provokes raves and controversy. They are made in a blender. The batter is nearly smooth and the latkes come out flat. Since no one tells the story better than she does, I'll let her continue:

"There is a snobbery among latke makers," she said. "With nose pointed in air, they say, 'Oh, I wouldn't use a blender. I like texture.' Well, lemme tell you, I'll give you texture.

"The whole thing is the way you make it," she continued. "I call it my splat method. You get the oil hot enough, without smoking. You hold a spoonful of batter 8 inches above the pan, and you drop it in. Splat! It plops and spreads all over the place because it's a batter. The top is all crust, the bottom is all crust, and there is no middle."

There is another key to her latke-making success: A very special pan.

"I have Mama Hinda's -- my grandma's frying pan that she made her latkes in. The pan is nothing really good; it's just that it was hers. My mother gets upset that I don't clean it well enough so she takes it home and polishes it up for me. When I make those latkes and I'm using her pan, I'm communing with Mama Hinda.

"Mama Hinda died in 1975 when she was 91 years old. On Hanukkah, we always went upstairs [to her grandparents' apartment]. It's not the gifts I remember. I remember the parties, the noise, the racket, all the cousins.

"In those days," she said, "everyone had their specialties. Aunt Irene always made her sweetbreads. Aunt Sally made her kreplach in marinara sauce that we ate off plates with toothpicks. Auntie Thelma was famous for her chocolate chip cookies and gefilte fish; Aunt Hilda made mandlebread. Everyone brought gifts, pillowcases filled to the brim. And of course Mama Hinda making her latkes in her pan that I have.

"But you know" -- she paused -- "I'm just talking about one night. Hanukkah is an eight-day holiday. My brothers and I would run upstairs and light candles with my grandparents on each of those nights."

Miriam Rubin is a freelance food writer who lives in Greene County. First Published November 29, 2007 5:00 AM


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