New Tastes for the Chanukah Table
by Katherine Romanow
Chanukah is probably one of my favorite holidays because of the food that's served during its eight days. The fact that we eat fried foods pleases me (although not my stomach) no end. Most things usually taste even better when they are cooked in some hot oil. I look forward to latkes, the quintessential Chanukah food in the Ashkenazi community, every year. Classic potato latkes topped with sour cream are my favorite, but I also love to experiment by making these pancakes with vegetables such as sweet potatoes, zucchini, corn, and even parsnips. There are so many variations on the latke that it is possible to serve a different kind each day of the holiday.
But this year I wanted to expand my culinary repertoire, so I turned to my ever-growing collection of cookbooks to see what others cook for Chanukah. I found an extensive variety of new dishes to include on my table. In the process I also learned a lot about the holiday and the culinary traditions that go along with it.
I was surprised to find that dairy dishes are another Chanukah tradition. According to Gil Marks, during the Middle Ages dairy dishes were served to commemorate Judith's heroism. In the biblical account, Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Assyria, sent his general Holofernes to occupy Judea. The Assyrians encircled the fortified town of Bethulia, which was on the outskirts of Jerusalem. When Judith, a young widow, went to Holofernes to try to save her town, the general found her extremely beautiful and asked her to his tent. Judith fed him cheese to make him thirsty and gave him wine when he asked for something to drink. Holofernes became so drunk that he fell asleep, and then Judith cut off his head using his own sword. When the Assyrian soldiers learned that their general had been killed, they turned and fled. The story became associated with the Hasmonean revolt and during the Middle Ages it was believed that Judith was the daughter of Judah Maccabee and that Holofernes was working with the Syrian-Greeks. Through the connection of these two stories, the tradition of serving dairy dishes became a part of Chanukah celebrations.
I found two delicious dairy recipes that are easy to prepare and great for a casual buffet or sit down meal. The first is Sephardic cheese pinwheels, or boyos de queso, savory pastries made with the simple oil-based dough that also is used for knishes and borekas. Cheese is added to the dough, which is rolled out and topped with more cheese. Then it's rolled into a jellyroll, cut into slices, and baked until golden brown. The result is a pastry in which melted cheese is surrounded by light and flaky dough. The pinwheels make perfect finger foods, delicious eaten either cold or hot out of the oven.
The second recipe is for Ashkenazi sweet cheese pancakes or zeesih kaese latkes. According to Mr. Marks, these light and delicate dessert pancakes are the original latkes made by Ashkenazi Jews. Unlike potato latkes, which can be time-consuming to prepare, you simply combine all the ingredients in a food processor for a pancake with a creamy texture and a hint of vanilla. The addition of some lemon rind and lemon juice brightens up the flavors. These latkes will be a welcome addition to any table.
For the final recipe, I couldn't resist another dessert. While I love soofganiyot, the fried doughnuts that have become a popular Chanukah treat, I wondered about other doughnut recipes. In my search, I came upon bimuelos, which are eaten in Sephardi communities across the Middle East. These are fritters in syrup, and according to Claudia Roden their name is Judeo-Spanish for small flour and yeast fritters. This dessert was known as zalabia in Egypt and zengoula in Iraq, Persia, and India. Making bimuelos is not difficult but it does take time because the batter has to rise before it can be fried. After letting the batter rest, you fry it into delectable fritters that no one will get enough of. What makes bimuelos so wonderful is dipping them into a sugar syrup flavored with a hint of orange blossom water. The fritters soak up the syrup and take on the wonderful floral-citrus taste of the orange-blossom water.
I hope that while these recipes introduce you to the large variety of Chanukah foods they also inspire you to find other recipes to add to your own celebrations.
Cheese Pinwheels (Boyos de Queso)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup lukewarm water
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 - 3/4 cup Parmesan cheese
About 2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cup grated cheddar, muenster, or swiss cheese
1 large egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water
Vegetable oil or butter to grease the pan
- In a large bowl, combine the oil, water, salt, and cheese. Stir in 11/2 cups of the flour. Once combined, gradually stir in enough of the remaining 1/2 cup flour to make a soft dough. You may not need the full half cup of flour at this stage; you just want to add enough for the dough to hold together in a firm ball.
- Form the dough into a ball, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes. Do not refrigerate.
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
- Roll out the dough into a 1/2 inch-thick rectangle, on a lightly floured surface. Sprinkle with 1 cup of the cheese and roll up jellyroll style. Cut into 1/2 inch-thick, slices.
- Place the slices on a greased baking sheet, cut side up. Brush the tops with the egg wash and sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup cheese.
- Bake until golden brown, between 15 to 20 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Yield: about 20 pastries<
Sweet Cheese Pancakes (Zeesih Kaese Latkes)
1 3/4 cups ricotta cheese
4 large eggs
About 3/4 cup all-purpose flour or matza meal
2 tablespoons melted butter or sour cream
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar or honey
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 -1 teaspoon lemon rind
1/2 - 1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
Vegetable oil or butter for frying
- In a food processor or blender, puree the cheese, eggs, flour or matza meal, butter or sour cream, sugar or honey, vanilla, lemon rind, lemon juice, and salt until smooth. Or beat the eggs with an electric mixer until creamy, then beat in the cheese and the remaining batter ingredients.
- Lightly grease a large skillet with oil or butter and heat over medium heat.
- Drop the batter by heaping tablespoonfuls into the skillet and fry until bubbles form on the tops of the pancakes and the bottoms are lightly browned, about 2 to 3 minutes.
- Turn the pancakes and fry until golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. (The pancakes may be kept warm by placing them in a 200- degree over in a single layer on a baking sheet.) Serve accompanied with maple syrup, jam, fruit or any other condiment of your choice.
Yield: About 15 5-inch pancakes
Doughnuts in Syrup (Bimuelos)
4 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups water
Juice of 1/2 lemon
3/4 - 1 tablespoon orange-blossom water (depending on how strong you want the flavor to be)
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
3 cups warm water
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
Vegetable oil for deep-frying
- Simmer the sugar, water, and lemon juice in a pan until it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 15 minutes. Add the orange-blossom water and simmer for a few more seconds. Transfer syrup to a bowl, cover and chill.
- Dissolve the yeast and sugar in 1/2 cup of the warm water. Let it stand until it froths, about 10-15 minutes.
- In a large bowl mix the flour, salt and the yeast mixture, then gradually stir in the remaining 2 1/2 cups water and beat vigorously for 10 minutes, until the batter is smooth and elastic. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and allow it to rise in a warm place for 1 hour. Beat the batter for 5 minutes and let it rise for another hour.
- In batches, pour balls of batter by the tablespoon into 1 1/2 inches sizzling but not too hot oil and fry until puffed up, crisp, and golden. Make sure to turn them so that they become golden all over. If you oil your spoon, you'll find that the batter rolls of very easily. Slightly lower the heat once you put the doughnuts in the oil in order to ensure that they cook all the way through before becoming too brown. If the doughnuts flatten while cooking this is an indication that the oil is not hot enough and the heat should be turned up.
- Once the doughnuts are cooked, lift them out of the oil with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Then dip them in the cold syrup for a few seconds until they are fully coated. The doughnuts are best served hot when they have just been made, but they can also be eaten cold.
Yield: About 40 tablespoon-sized bimuelos
Katherine Romanow is a master's student in the Judaic studies program at Concordia University in Montreal. Her research focuses on Jewish food in the modern period. She also writes for the Eating Jewish column for the Jewish Women's Archive blog, Jewesses with Attitude.