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There’s a rather gory tale that’s part of the Hanukkah story. It involves much wine, a nasty general, a great quantity of cheese and a heroine, Judith. Latkes are not mentioned.
According to the book “Hanukkah in America” by Dianne Aston, “The high priest Yochanan’s daughter, Judith, captured and beheaded the Assyrian general Holofernes to aid the larger Maccabean effort.”
She elaborates: “Judith fed cheese to Holofernes to intensify his thirst, which she slaked with wine to make him sleepy. She then chopped off his head, thereby preventing the siege of her village, set for the next day.”
In honor of Judith, cheese — generally soft white — became one of the symbolic foods for the holiday. Hanukkah, known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day holiday beginning at sundown on Dec. 12. It celebrates the miracle that a tiny vial of consecrated oil kept the temple menorah alight for eight days, until new oil could be secured.
To commemorate the miracle, we light eight candles — “one for each night, to shed a sweet light, to remind us of days long ago” – if I’m remembering this Hanukkah song correctly.
Because of the miracle of the oil, fried foods are also symbolic at Hanukkah. Most popular here are latkes, the crispy, tasty pancakes often made with shredded white potatoes and served with applesauce or sour cream. Potato latkes have Eastern European roots, as the potato was a staple of the winter diet.
Doughnuts, because they are fried in oil, are also a Hanukkah tradition, especially in Israel where you’ll find the jelly-filled sufganiyot. In Germany, the Hanukkah doughnut was called Krapfen, according to “The German-Jewish Cookbook” by Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman and Sonya Gropman.
Cheese blintzes are also popular, as are pancakes made from soft cheese and fried in olive oil, thereby combining both food traditions. Cheese pancakes are Italian in origin and are the original latke, writes Gil Marks in “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.”
However, cheese dishes don’t have to be sweet or fried to fit in for Hanukkah. From “Hazana” a new book on Jewish vegetarian cooking by Paolo Gavin, comes a savory Turkish herb-and cheese turnover. Ms. Gavin writes that the Turkish Jewish kitchen had strong Sephardic and Ottoman influences and featured many savory pastries “filled with spinach, Swiss chard, eggplant, potato, pumpkin or cheese.”
Hanukkah is joyous holiday and you’ll want to end the meal with something sweet like an almond cheesecake. It’s a homey dessert, part cottage cheese, part cream cheese, and loosely based on an Italian ricotta cheesecake. The almond and cinnamon-sugar topping adds warm spice and crunch. Cheesecake can sometimes be heavy and filling, but this one is lighter, so you can eat all the latkes you desire.
It’s Hanukkah after all.
Miriam Rubin: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mmmrubin.
Sephardic Cheese and Parsley Pastries
These are Turkish in origin. Make sure your feta is soft and flavorful. Take your time if you’re new to working with phyllo. It’s not difficult; it just dries out quickly when not covered.
10 to 13 sheets fresh or thawed frozen phyllo pastry (it’s brittle so some pieces will break)
Extra-virgin olive oil for brushing
About 1 tablespoon nigella seeds or black sesame seeds
For the filling:
1 cup mashed feta or beyaz peynir (Turkish white cheese)
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan or kefalotyri cheese
1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk
1 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (2 small bunches)
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
Pinch kosher salt
To make the filling: In medium bowl, put both cheeses, egg, egg yolk, parsley, mint and salt and mix well. (If it looks dry, add 1 tablespoon yogurt.)
To make the pastries: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
On work space, stack 5 sheets phyllo dough; keep rest refrigerated. Using a ruler as a guide, cut dough into 3 lengthwise strips (each about 3 inches wide). Stack strips and cover with plastic wrap.
Take one strip of pastry; brush lightly with oil. Place heaping teaspoon of filling over bottom end of pastry strip. Carefully lift up the right-hand corner and fold over to make a triangle. Fold over again and again until you have reached the top. Brush top strip with oil; seal lightly. Brush top of pastry with oil and arrange side by side on lined baking sheet. Repeat with remaining phyllo and filling.
Sprinkle pastries with nigella or sesame seeds and bake 12-15 minutes, or until crisp and golden. Transfer to wire racks. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes about 30 pastries.
Adapted from “Hazana: Jewish Vegetarian Cooking” by Paola Gavin (Quadrille; October 2017; $35)
Holiday Almond Cheesecake
1 6.75-ounce package Bordeaux shortbread cookies
1/2 cup slivered or sliced almonds
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 16-ounce container creamed small curd cottage cheese
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
5 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup sliced natural almonds
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter 12- by-8-inch baking dish.
In a food processor, put cookies, the ½ cup almonds, brown sugar and cinnamon and pulse until finely ground. Scrape into medium bowl; mix with melted butter. With spoon, press crumbs firmly into bottom and ¼ inch up the sides of the prepared baking dish.
Wipe out food processor. Add cottage cheese, cream cheese, flour and lemon zest; pulse just until nearly smooth. Scrape bowl. Add granulated sugar and extracts; process until incorporated. One at a time, add eggs through feed tube, processing about a second after each. Scrape the bowl.
Scrape mixture into crust. Bake until cake is firm and puffed at edges, yet still a touch jiggly in center, 35-45 minutes. Transfer to wire rack.
For the topping: While cake is still hot, in small bowl, mix slivered almonds, granulated sugar and cinnamon. Sprinkle over cheesecake. Cool cake until warm, then refrigerate. This cake keeps at least three days in the fridge. Let it sit at room temperature about 30 minutes before serving so it’s not icy cold. Cut into pieces to serve.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
— Miriam Rubin