Say cheese! A new spin on Hanukkah stories, recipes

Margi Lenga Kahn

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

Another Hanukkah column, I thought with a sigh. Judas Maccabeus, big battle, miracle oil that burned for eight days, yadda, yadda, yadda. And for the food column: latkes, latkes, latkes. Sigh.

But then I discovered an entirely new Hanukkah tale, one that connected my favorite childhood Hanukkah dish to a heroic tale that predates Judas and his brothers, a story that linked my mother’s sweet cheese pancakes to a remarkable woman named Judith (Yehudit). More on that later.

Even without sweet cheese pancakes, Hanukkah food customs vary throughout the world. Most traditional Hanukkah foods include oil, or are fried in oil, to commemorate the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days. Here in America, where Ashkenazi culinary traditions dominate Jewish culture, potato latkes are the food most American Jews associate with Hanukkah. Traditional latkes are made from shredded potatoes and, sometimes, onions, fried in oil and topped with applesauce or sour cream. 

But among Syrian Jews, a different version of a latke – keftes – are popular. Those pancakes feature leeks and vegetables rather than potatoes and are seasoned with lemon juice and fresh herbs. They also are fried in a pan on top of the stove.

In Israel, however, sufganiyot are the most popular Hanukkah treat. They are doughnuts filled with everything from custard to Nutella to pistachio to pastry crème to halvah, and topped with dulce de leche, whipped cream, chocolate and sprinkles. They line the windows and shelves of every bakery weeks before, during and after the holiday. Ironically, the more traditional jelly-filled sufganiyot are much harder to find during the holiday season.

Following in the doughnut tradition, Greek Jews serve loukoumades. These irregular-shaped balls of fried dough are soaked in honey and often sprinkled with walnuts. 

But traditional Hanukkah fare does not end with latkes and sufganiyot. Have you ever stopped to think why some families, perhaps even your own, serve dairy dishes on Hanukkah? You may have enjoyed cheese pancakes for a Hanukkah breakfast or had a Hanukkah dinner that includes cheese blintzes or cheesy noodle kugel.

Syrian Jews have always made cheese-stuffed pancakes on Hanukkah. Their pancakes, atayef, are made with ricotta cheese and fried in oil. The Sephardic Jews of Spain fill fried puffs with cheese (boyos de pan) and create a cheese pastry (bulemes), which is covered with cheese, rolled up, coiled, brushed with oil and baked. 

For Jews of both Ashkenazic and Sephardic descent, Zeesih Kaese Latkes are a traditional Hanukkah treat. And though I remember my mother making these delicious pancakes for breakfast during Hanukkah, I was unaware of any historical significance connected to this lesser known culinary tradition. 

Until now. 

Up through the Middle Ages, another tale of heroism, this one featuring a courageous woman named Judith, was also celebrated on Hanukkah. And, just like the story of Hanukkah, the Book of Judith is not part of the Torah. As a woman, I was particularly enthralled by this tale and, once familiar with it, would easily put the courage of Judith (Yehudit) alongside the brothers Maccabi.

And so the tale goes: In the second century BCE (which predates the victory of the Maccabean army led by Judas Maccabeus over the Assyrians) in Bethulia, a small town just outside Jerusalem, the Jews were under siege by the Assyrian army led by a general named Holofernes. All food and water to the town had been cut off, putting the Jews on the brink of starvation. As the town prepared to surrender, a bright and beautiful young widow named Judith told her people to stay strong and announced that she would request an audience with the general. 

Holofernes was quite taken by Judith, invited her into his tent and promised that if he succeeded in conquering Bethulia, he would make her his wife. Among the gifts she brought to the tent was salty goat cheese, which she fed to the general to make him thirsty. It worked. He drank far more wine than usual, got drunk and passed out. 

And then? Incredibly, Judith decapitated the general with his own sword, wrapped his head in a large sack and sneaked back to Bethulia late at night. When the general’s army discovered their headless commander, they were so terrified that they fled the region. 

And thus, as I discovered, the tradition of eating dairy on Hanukkah was born. To honor Judith’s heroism, I am including two dairy recipes for Hanukkah, both made with ricotta cheese. If you are able to get whole milk ricotta cheese, treat yourself. It will make a difference. 

The lemon-scented pancakes can be served unadorned, with maple syrup or, as my mother served them, with a dollop of jam and a sprinkle of confectioner’s sugar. Though not traditional Hanukkah fare, my family has always enjoyed these lemon-ricotta blueberry muffins with a sugary crust. They are perfect for breakfast, accompanied by an afternoon cup of tea or following an exciting game of dreidel.

And because no Hanukkah celebration is complete without latkes, and because I am one who believes in exploring the boundaries of tradition, I decided to experiment. Using just one peeled and grated Russet potato and one sweet potato, a quarter of a grated yellow onion, and an optional beaten egg and flour, I soaked both grated potatoes in ice water for 10 minutes, squeezed out the water with my hands and saved the starch that remained in the bottom of the soaking bowl once all the water had been poured off.

I made four different latkes for my husband and I to rate, incorporating eggs, flour and onion into some of them, and made all of them savory with the addition of ground cumin, coriander, salt and pepper, and a pinch of cayenne pepper. I served them all topped with Greek yogurt spiced with za’atar.  

And the winner was … a latke made from the fewest number of ingredients: a mixture of both potatoes, some of the starch left in the soaking bowl and all the spices I mention above. I fried the latkes in just a little bit of olive oil over medium heat – low and slow. They were lacy, crisp and delicious. No recipe needed, just a fun Hanukkah experiment.

Wishing you a healthy and delightful Hanukkah!

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of seven. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected]