Whether you spell it Chanukah or Hannukah, this festive winter holiday is associated with all sorts of latkes, sufganiyot and fried foods to celebrate the miracle of a small amount of oil miraculously lasting for eight days.
The tradition of eating dairy dishes, particularly cheese, did not become popular until the Middle Ages. The story is told about a beautiful Jewess named Judith who saved her village from the Syrian-Greeks during the time of the Maccabean Revolt. She charmed her way into the enemy camp and brought a basket of cheese and wine to Holofernes, the enemy general. The salty cheese made him very thirsty and Holofernes drank so much wine that he eventually became drunk and passed out. Judith beheaded him with his own sword, and when the Syrian-Greeks discovered that their leader was dead, they fled. It eventually became a tradition to eat dairy foods in honor of Judith’s bravery.
In the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, cookbook author Gil Marks explains how latkes became the ubiquitous Chanukah treat: “Latkes derive originally from Italian ricotta pancakes. Being fried and made with dairy made them suitable for Hanukkah.”
The most prominent Ashkenazic term for pancake is the Eastern European latke, derived from the Ukrainian word for pancake and fritter, oladka, by way of the Greek eladia (little oilies), ultimately from the Greek elaion (olive oil).
Cooks began using other ingredients in their latkes, such as cauliflower, spinach and zucchini. However, potato latkes, crisp on the outside and tender on the inside, are always a favorite.
Gil Marks writes: “The secret to making crispy potato latkes without absorbing a lot of fat is to fry the batter in hot oil (about 1/4 inch), enough so that the latkes glide in the pan.”
In addition to crispy potato latkes and tender cheese latkes topped with sour cream or yogurt, here are a few of my favorite dairy dishes from my personal recipe collection.
GIL MARKS’ ASHKENAZIC CHEESE PANCAKES (KAESE LATKES/LEVIVOT GEVINAH)
Yields about 26 3-inch pancakes
2 cups (16 ounces) farmer cheese, pot cheese or drained ricotta cheese
4 large eggs
About 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar or honey
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
About 1/2 teaspoon table salt or 1 teaspoon kosher salt
Vegetable oil or butter for frying
In a large bowl, beat together the cheese, eggs, flour, sugar, vanilla and salt until well combined.
In a large skillet or griddle, heat a thin layer of oil over medium heat.
In batches, drop the batter by heaping tablespoonfuls and fry until the top is set and the bottom is lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Turn and fry until golden, about 2 minutes.
Serve with sour cream, yogurt, maple syrup, jam, cinnamon/sugar or fresh fruit.
Yields about 5 dozen hors d’oeuvres
2 packages (10 ounces/300 grams each) frozen spinach
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 of a red pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 package (8 ounces/250 grams) light or regular cream cheese (or 1/2 cup ricotta plus 1/2 cup feta cheese)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon minced fresh dill (or 1 teaspoon dried)
8 sheets phyllo dough
1/4 cup olive oil
(melted butter or margarine can be substituted)
Cook spinach according to package directions. Cool slightly and squeeze dry.
In a medium skillet, sauté onion, red pepper and garlic in olive oil on medium-high for 3 to 4 minutes, until softened.
In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, process spinach until finely chopped. Add remaining filling ingredients. Process just until mixed, scraping down sides of bowl as needed.
Preheat oven to 375°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil that has been sprayed with nonstick spray.
Place 1 sheet of phyllo dough on a dry work surface, with the long side facing you. (Keep remaining dough covered with plastic wrap.) Brush dough lightly with oil. Top with a second sheet of dough; brush again lightly with oil.
Spoon 1/4 of the filling in a narrow band, 1 inch from the bottom edge of the dough, leaving a 1-inch border on both sides. Fold sides inwards and roll up dough into a long cylinder. Place seam-side down on prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough and filling. You will have 4 rolls.
Brush tops of rolls lightly with oil. Using a sharp knife, mark 1-inch slices, cutting partially through the dough but not through the filling. (This makes for easier slicing after baking. If you slice the rolls completely before baking, the filling will dry out.) You will get about 15 slices from each roll.
Bake for 20 minutes, until golden. Slice and serve.
Note: Freezes well. To reheat, bake uncovered at 350°F for 10 minutes. Slice and serve.
Broccoli can be used instead of spinach. One cup of ricotta cheese can be used instead of cream cheese. If desired, add 1/2 cup chopped sundried tomatoes, rinsed and drained, to the filling mixture.
Follow the steps for “Filling” above.
Place 1 sheet of phyllo dough on a dry work surface and brush lightly with oil or butter. Top with a second sheet of dough and brush again with oil or butter. Cut dough into 6 strips about 2 inches wide.
Place about 1 teaspoon filling about 1 inch from the bottom of each strip. Fold upward to cover filling.
Bring the bottom-right corner upward to meet left edge, making a triangle. Continue folding upward and from side to side until the strip is completely folded into a triangle. Repeat with remaining dough and filling.
Place triangles seam-side down on lightly sprayed baking pan. Brush with additional oil or melted butter. (May be frozen at this point. No need to thaw before baking; just add 2 or 3 minutes to baking time.)
Bake for 20 minutes, until golden.
Yields 12 servings
Prepare spinach filling as directed for Spanakopita Roll-Ups.
Spray a 9×13-inch casserole with nonstick spray. Line casserole with 4 sheets of phyllo, brushing each sheet lightly with oil as you layer it in the pan. Let edges of dough hang over pan.
Spread filling evenly over dough. Quickly cover with remaining 4 sheets of phyllo, brushing each layer lightly with oil. Fold overhanging edges over the top; brush with oil once again.
Bake at 350°F for 30 minutes, until golden.
Note: Reheats and/or freezes well.
Yields 5 dozen
5 dozen medium mushrooms
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
Filling for Spanakopita Roll-Ups (above)
Rinse mushrooms quickly and drain well. Pat dry. Remove stems and reserve for another use.
Brush outsides of mushroom caps with a little oil. Fill each cap with a spoonful of filling, mounding it slightly. Arrange in a single layer in a sprayed or foil-lined baking dish. Sprinkle with sesame seeds if desired.
Bake at 350°F for 15 minutes, until piping hot.
Yields 6 servings
No-roll enchiladas are layered like lasagna. This dish is fiber-packed and so yummy! The best part of all is that you don’t have to boil lasagna noodles to make this dish. If you use corn tortillas, this lasagna will be gluten-free.
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 1/2 cups sliced mushrooms
1 green pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
3 cups tomato sauce
1 can (19 ounces/540 milliliters) kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
7 corn or flour tortillas
3/4 cup grated low-fat mozzarella cheese
3/4 cup grated low-fat Swiss cheese
Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray an 8 x 12-inch casserole with nonstick spray.
Heat oil in a nonstick skillet on medium-high heat. Sauté onion, mushrooms, green pepper and garlic for 5 minutes.
Add tomato sauce, beans and chili powder. Simmer uncovered for 5 minutes.
Layer 2 tortillas, 1/3 of sauce mixture and 1/3 of grated cheese in prepared casserole. Continue layering until all the ingredients are used, making three layers. Cut up the extra tortilla to fill in any empty spaces.
Bake uncovered for 25 minutes.
Note: Reheats and/or freezes well.
Yields 12 to 16 servings
This decadent cheesecake is a winner! It’s extremely rich so serve very small portions.
1 package (8 ounces/250 grams) chocolate wafers
1/2 cup butter or margarine, melted
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups chocolate chips
1 pound (500 grams) cream cheese, cut into chunks (light or regular)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup sour cream (light or regular)
1/2 cup chilled whipping cream (35%)
1 tablespoon confectioner’s sugar
Gold-wrapped chocolate coins or chocolate curls
Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray a 9-inch spring form pan with nonstick spray.
Insert steel blade in food processor. Break wafers into chunks and drop through the feed tube while machine is running. Process them until fine crumbs are formed. Add butter or margarine, brown sugar and cinnamon. Process a few seconds longer to blend. Press into the bottom of prepared pan, reserving 1/3 cup crumb mixture for topping. Wash and dry processor bowl and blade.
Place chocolate chips in a glass bowl and melt on medium power (50%) in the microwave for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring 2 or 3 times. (Alternatively, melt them in the top of a double boiler over simmering water, stirring occasionally.)
Process cream cheese with sugar for 30 seconds. Do not insert pusher in feed tube for maximum volume. Add eggs and process until well blended, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Add melted chocolate and sour cream and process 20 seconds longer.
Pour chocolate mixture over crust and sprinkle with reserved crumbs.
Place a pie plate half filled with water on bottom rack of oven. (This helps prevent the cheesecake from cracking.) Place cheesecake on middle rack.
Bake for 50 to 55 minutes. When done, edges of cake will be set, but the center will be somewhat soft. Turn off the oven and let cheesecake cool inside for half an hour with the door partially open.
When completely cooled, place cheesecake on a serving plate. Remove sides of pan.
Whip cream until thick. Add confectioner’s sugar and whip a few seconds longer, until soft peaks form. Pipe rosettes of whipped cream around edges of cheesecake. Garnish with chocolate coins or chocolate curls.
Note: Freezes well. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator.
Make or buy a cardboard stencil of a Chanukah menorah. Place it on top of the baked, cooled cheesecake. Sift confectioner’s sugar over top, and then carefully remove the stencil. You will then have the design of a menorah on top of your cheesecake.
Copyright © Norene Gilletz, September 11, 2013.
Norene Gilletz is the author of nine cookbooks and divides her time between work as a food writer, culinary consultant, spokesperson, cooking instructor, lecturer and editor. Norene lives in Toronto, Canada. For more information, visit her web site at www.gourmania.com or e-mail her at email@example.com.