Hanukkah latkes: Think outside the spud

It's the Middle Ages -- say, the 15th century. You're relaxing with women friends at a party on the seventh night of Hanukkah, laughing, singing, telling stories. You catch sight of the heaping platter of traditional Hanukkah pancakes being passed around. Your mouth waters -- you can't wait to eat your fill of those delicious cheese latkes!

Whoa, back up. Everyone knows the traditional fried golden goodies of Hanukkah are potato latkes! Well, folks, truth is, it looks like the original latkes were cheese.

Who knew? Not me, a nice Jewish girl whose ancestors were from eastern Europe and so Ashkenazi by tradition. Turns out the association of cheese with Hanukkah is from the Sephardi side of things -- that is, was practiced by Jews originating in Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East.

I found this out some years ago when I went searching for a dish to serve alongside potato latkes at a Hanukkah party. Recently, I explored the story further and found a fascinating tale. Let's trace it by its edible components: oil, cheese and potato.

First, oil, critical for any Hanukkah latke. Latke must be fried! To understand oil's significance, we'll look to the story.

Hanukkah, "dedication" in Hebrew, commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem following the Jewish victory over the Syrian-Greeks in 165 B.C.E. Antiochus IV, Emperor of Syria, had invaded and conquered the city. Determined to outlaw Judaism and replace it with Hellenism, he directed his troops to loot and desecrate the Temple, the center of Jewish ritual practice.

Practice of Judaism was forbidden on pain of death. The heroes of the Hanukkah story, the Maccabees, a small band of fighters led by the five sons of the Jewish priest Mattathias, launched a revolt. After three years of fierce battles, they triumphed, chasing their oppressors out of Jerusalem. They regained the Temple and immediately sought to purify it. The priests sought to rekindle the Temple's candelabra. They found only a small vial of ritually pure olive oil, enough to burn for barely one day. But when they lit the flame, it miraculously lasted for eight.

The rituals and traditions of the eight-day holiday of Hanukkah honor this miracle. Each night of the festival, Jews light eight-branched Hanukkah candelabras ("menorahs" or "hanukkiyot") with an additional ninth candle, the shamash, or helper, candle used to light the others. One candle is lit the first evening with an additional candle lit each successive night. And Jews happily remember the miracle of the oil by preparing and eating foods fried in oil, preferably olive oil, throughout the festival.

OK, what about cheese? That's the part I was, and I think perhaps most people, Jewish and not, are unaware of. Turns out that somewhere along the line another story got mixed in with the Hanukkah tale: The story of Judith. No one is exactly sure how this story, told in The Book of Judith -- part of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian Old Testament, but not of Jewish scriptures -- became linked to the story of Hanukkah. If she existed at all -- and scholars are divided on this -- Judith likely lived centuries earlier.

The Book of Judith tells the story of the beautiful Jewish widow Judith who gained entrance to the tent of the Assyrian general Holofernes who was poised to conquer Judea. She enticed him to eat quantities of salty cheese to make him thirsty, then offered him wine to slake his thirst. When Holofernes fell into a drunken stupor, Judith prayed for God's help, then took his sword and decapitated him. When they found their leader dead, the Assyrian army was thrown into confusion and fled.

By the Middle Ages this story was no longer available to Jews in the original Hebrew. Perhaps because it shared a theme with Hanukkah -- that the small, with faith and courage, can triumph over the mighty -- or to inspire Jews during that dark time, the oral tale became associated with Hanukkah. In Judith's honor, a tradition first mentioned by a rabbi in 14th-century Spain began -- eating dairy products, particularly cheese, on Hanukkah.

At some point, ricotta pancakes, which, according to Gil Marks in "Encyclopedia of Jewish Foods," Sicilian Jews had introduced to Northern Italy after their expulsion from Sicily in 1492, became a Hanukkah favorite..

And potatoes? It turns out they're latecomers to the Hanukkah party. When Jews migrated eastward and settled in northeastern Europe, they found cheese and olive oil both scarce and expensive, especially in winter. These Ashkenazi Jews, who commonly raised geese and chickens, turned to poultry fat, rendering it into schmaltz. Because of the kosher prohibition against mixing meat and milk, with schmaltz the chief frying medium, cheese latkes became a no-no. Latkes made of grains, and of vegetables, were substituted. It was only when potatoes became a widely available and cheap staple in mid-19th century Europe that they were used for latkes. Potato latkes traveled to America with German and then Eastern European immigrants and became the iconic Hanukkah pancake in the U.S. After the turn of the 20th century, vegetable shortening and oils became commonly used for frying in the U.S. Dairy, in the form of sour cream, reclaimed its partnership with latkes.

So, most of us grew up eating potato latkes on Hanukkah. And heaven forbid we give up this beloved dish -- family and friends would likely mutiny. But the festival is eight days long, so why not mix it up? Include the original -- cheese latkes.

Judith’s Cheese Latkes

These are light and less sweet than the ricotta pancakes. The instructions for testing the temperature of the oil, and draining and serving the latkes are the same.

3 eggs

3⁄4 cup milk

1 cup cottage cheese

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

Oil or butter for frying

Optional: up to 1/2 cup grated hard cheese added with the cottage cheese

In a large bowl, beat eggs. Add milk and cheese.

Sift dry ingredients into a medium bowl.

Stir dry ingredients and stir into the egg mixture. Blend well.

Drop by heaping tablespoons into hot fat. Cook to delicate brown on both sides.

Makes about 22 4-inch pancakes.

— Adapted from “The Jewish Festival Cookbook” by Fannie Engle and Gertrude Blair (David McKay, 1954)

Ricotta Pancakes

Light, slightly sweet pancakes, reminiscent of the filling in cheese blintzes. Top with yogurt, maple syrup, jam, fresh fruit or the familiar applesauce and sour cream. Or, to celebrate this year’s never-to-be-repeated juxtaposition of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving, bring out the cranberry sauce!

2 cups ricotta cheese, drained if very wet

4 large eggs

3⁄4 cup all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar or honey (I used sugar)

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon salt

Vegetable oil or butter for frying (in the spirit of the holiday, I used olive oil)

Optional: I added about 1 tablespoon grated lemon peel

In a large bowl, beat together cheese, eggs, flour, sugar or honey, vanilla, salt and optional lemon peel until well combined.

In a large skillet or griddle, heat a thin layer of oil or butter over medium heat. Test that the oil is the right temperature by throwing in a crust of bread or pinch of flour. The oil should bubble around the crust but not burn it. To make sure the oil doesn’t cool, which can make the latkes absorb too much oil, don’t crowd the latkes and don’t add oil to the pan while they are cooking. If you need additional oil, add it between batches, checking for the proper temperature each time.

Drop the batter into the pan by heaping tablespoons, flattening each pancake slightly with a spatula. Fry until the top is set and the bottom lightly browned. Turn over and fry until golden brown. Drain on a tray lined with a few layers of paper towels or layers of newspapers topped with a layer of paper towels. The pancakes are best eaten right away, but can be kept warm on a foil-covered tray in a 200-degree oven. They can also be frozen between layers of aluminum foil and reheated in a 350-degree oven.

Makes about 24 3-inch pancakes.

— Adapted from “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” by Gil Marks (Wiley, 2010)

Elizabeth Boltson Gordon: boltson3@gmail.com.


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