"On the first day of Christmas..."
I always thought that lovely carol, cataloguing each of the twelve days of Christmas giving, brought Hanukkah more to mind. After all, Christmas lasts at most two days (Christmas Eve and Christmas Day itself), and possibly another, like Epiphany, for exchanging presents.
But Hanukkah spans a full eight days. And while that means there are more days to celebrate, a longer festival also elicits a different kind of family celebration for most of the holiday.
Yes, on Hanukkah there may be raucous parties with a host of friends and feasts of foods and big family get-togethers taking place on the weekend (or ends) that fall during the holiday and perhaps on a couple of the other days. There may be the thrill of opening one or two special, lavish presents, given in lieu of, or combined with, more modest gifts for the other days of the festival.
Most of Hanukkah, though, is celebrated more simply in our homes, eating cozy meals embellished by a few of the holiday foods while burning menorahs light up the wintry night. But indelible family memories are made not only of boldface moments: each night of Hanukkah becomes special when we make it an authentically shared family experience. Here are some simple ideas for family activities and foods to enhance your holiday, whether it is your first time celebrating it or your fortieth.
While there is no religious proscription against working during Hanukkah--even for the most Orthodox--as on some of the other holidays, there is a tradition of not engaging in work while the menorah candles are burning (usually thirty minutes to one hour). So forget the dishes, set aside the homework, and turn off the TV. This is a wonderful opportunity: use this time for a special family activity, one that invites participation by all generations present.
Many families play dreidel, spinning a four-sided top bearing Hebrew letters that stand for "A Great Miracle Happened Here." But there is nothing sacred about dreidels, and no reason not to update tradition with something your family prefers, like cards, chess, or board games. Our family usually sets up Trivial Pursuit for a team game, kids against adults. If we run out of time, the next night we just pick up where we left off. A friend's family begins a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle on the first night.
We're especially fond of storytelling of all kinds, from sharing tales rooted in our family trees to reading Hanukkah picture books that speak poignantly to all ages. You could easily do as Isaac Bashevis Singer suggested: tell a different story each night of Hanukkah. There is a rich repertoire to explore that will engage the whole family: Jewish stories of salts and tricksters, or multicultural, traditional, or contemporary tales.
Whether they are gathered around the piano or the holiday table, nothing brings the generations together like music. Devote a night or two to rousing group sings of traditional Hanukkah songs like Rock of Ages, the Beatles, classic rock, or just old family favorites.
Don't forget to highlight one night with dancing. CDs of Hava Nagilah for a hora are readily available, but any exuberant dancing the family enjoys will be great fun, an upbeat antidote to the winter blues.
It takes effort and planning for busy families to steal a little time together. But at the end of the holiday, you'll have eight days of cherished new memories.
Of course, you will need nourishment for all that activity. Potato pancakes and jelly doughnuts, fried to commemorate the tiny bottle of oil that miraculously burned in the Temple menorah for eight full days, are among the glories of the Jewish kitchen. But the truth is, no matter how fond you are of these mouth-watering treats, they no longer taste special when you've been eating them for several days.
Oil, though, is the defining culinary characteristic here, and many foods offer a taste of Hanukkah when they have been fried in oil. Experiment with recipes for dishes enjoyed throughout the Diaspora, or try fried foods inspired by other cuisines, like Greek spinach latkes or scallion pancakes, reminiscent of Chinese dim sum. Some people incorporate the fried food traditions of their non-Jewish family members or the birth parents of their adopted children: Southern fried chicken, Colombian arepas (corn pancakes).
Made from scratch, potato pancakes can take up almost all my allotted time in the kitchen on harried nights. And latkes alone do not a dinner make. So one night I dipped fish fillets into the latke batter, and served a one-pan fish-and-chips, Jewish-style.
Round out these fried foods with a salad of sliced fresh oranges and romaine or some roasted asparagus; ripe mango or pineapple, or homey fruit sauces and compotes that can be readied in advance.
The other symbolic Hanukkah food need not be fried at all: dairy, representing the courageous exploits of the Jewish heroine, Judith. According to many historical sources, the Book of Judith was written around the time of the Maccabees, and the story became associated with Hanukkah during the Middle Ages. When Bethulia was under siege, this beautiful widow plied Holofernes, the Assyrian general, with salty cheese. He became increasingly thirsty, eventually drinking so much wine that Judith was able to overcome him and save her people from slaughter. So instead of potato latkes, serve delicate ones made of cheese, or cheese blintzes. Or accompany broiled or baked fish with a mound of couscous, drizzled with melted butter and swirls of cinnamon, dotted here and there with plumped raisins or ruby pomegranate seeds.
Or end the evening with homemade butter cookies or a slice of luscious cheesecake.
These foods, like the uncomplicated family activities I've mentioned, are simple. But invested with a sense of family tradition, they will taste richer every year.
[For more of Jayne Cohen's latke recipes, see the article she wrote for us last year: Family Hanukkah Celebrations.]
1. SCALLION LATKES WITH SCALLION DIPPING BRUSHES
Kids love using these scallion brushes to brush the dipping sauce on their latkes! Reminiscent of those savory little pancakes served as dim sum, this dish makes use of ancient Chinese wisdom: the bracing, clean flavors of ginger, vinegar and soy provide a sparkling antidote to the oily richness, as well as welcome respite from the ubiquitous sour cream.
For scallion brushes:
10-12 thin scallions
For dipping sauce:
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon rice, Chinese black, or cider vinegar
2 teaspoons Asian toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon peeled and grated fresh ginger
optional: chili oil to taste
For the latkes:
2-2 1/2 bunches of scallions, white and light green parts, trimmed and thinly sliced (about 2 1/2 cups)
2 tablespoons mild olive or vegetable oil, plus additional oil for frying latkes
1 teaspoon peeled and finely minced fresh ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons soy sauce
about 1 1/2 lbs.Yukon Gold or russet (baking) potatoes, peeled
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 large egg
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons matzah meal or all-purpose flour
1. Make the scallion brushes. Cut off and discard the roots and all but 3 inches of the green part of the scallions. Using a scissor or a small paring knife, cut slits about 1/2-inch deep into both sections of each scallion stalk, creating a fringe. Carefully fan out the fringed edges. Place the scallions in a bowl of ice water, and refrigerate for 2 hours or until the fringed edges curl up.
2. Prepare the dipping sauce. Stir together all ingredients and let the flavors meld for at least 30 minutes.
3. Start the latkes. In a large skillet, saute the scallions over moderately high heat in the oil until tender and just beginning to brown at the edges. Stir in the ginger, garlic and soy sauce, and cook, lifting and turning, for 2 -3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool briefly.
4. Coarsely shred the potatoes, using the grating disk in a food processor. Transfer the potatoes to a colander or strainer and use your hands or a wooden spoon to press out as much moisture as possible. (Don't bother washing out food processor--you'll be using it again here.)
5. Remove the grating disk from the processor and replace with the steel blade. Return about 1/3 of the shredded potatoes to the work bowl of food processor and roughly puree, using pulse motion. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl, add the remaining coarsely shredded potatoes from the colander, and the egg, salt, pepper, baking powder, and matzah meal or flour. (You will need salt here--the soy sauce merely flavors the scallions. Putting in enough soy sauce would make the latkes too wet. Figure about 1 teaspoon of salt.) Stir in the sautéed scallions. Mix until thoroughly combined.
6. In a heavy, 10- to 12-inch skillet (cast-iron is ideal), heat about 1/4-inch oil over high heat until it is hot but not smoking. Using a 1/4-cup measure, drop the batter into the pan; then flatten the latkes with a spatula. Cook no more than 4 or 5 latkes at a time; crowding the pan will make the latkes soggy.
7. Regulate the heat carefully as the latkes fry until golden and crisp on the bottom, about 4 minutes. To prevent the oil from splattering, use two spatulas (or a spatula and a large spoon) to turn the latkes carefully. Fry until crisp and golden on the other side. (Avoid turning the latkes more than once or they will absorb too much oil. Before turning, lift the latkes slightly with the spatula to make sure the underside is crisp and brown.)
8. Transfer the cooked latkes to paper towels or untreated brown paper bags to drain. Continue frying latkes in the same way until all the batter is used. If necessary, add more oil to the pan, but always allow the oil to get hot before frying a new batch.
9. If you must keep the latkes warm, place them in a single layer on a rack in a slow oven (200 degrees), until they are all ready to be brought to the table.
10.When ready to serve, pat the scallions brushes dry. Guests should use the brushes to coat each latke with dipping sauce, then top the latke with the brush.
Yield: 4 servings
2. WALNUT-CHERRY CHEESE LATKES WITH CHUNKY CHERRY-APPLESAUCE
Crisp potato latkes are the taste of Hanukkah for most Ashkenazi Jews. But the first latkes, according to many food historians, were probably made of cheese. Today latkes based on sweet curd cheeses--farmer, pot and cottage--remain popular.
Delicate and dairy-clean tasting, this version begs for a fresh complement of bright-tasting fruit. Instead of the traditional syrup or preserves, which would overpower the natural milky sweetness, serve the latkes with the easy-to-prepare cherry applesauce that follows.
They make a wonderful light supper, breakfast, or brunch. Or serve the latkes as a finish to a more elaborate meal.
1/2 lb. farmer cheese (a 7.5 oz. package is fine), drained
2 tablespoons cream cheese, room temperature
4 large eggs, separated
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon light brown granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup dried tart cherries, plumped in hot water 10 minutes, then drained
1/3 cup finely chopped lightly toasted walnuts
unsalted butter and mild vegetable oil, like avocado or canola, for frying
1. Combine both cheeses, egg yolks, and extracts in a food processor and process until well-blended and smooth. Add the flour, sugar, and salt, and pulse to blend. Transfer the batter to a large bowl. Mix in cherries and walnuts.
2. Whip the egg whites in a separate bowl until stiff, but not dry. Gently fold the whites into the batter.
3. Heat 2 tablespoons each of butter and oil in a heavy 10- to 12-inch skillet over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Working in batches, drop the batter by heaping tablespoonfuls into the skillet, and fry until the bottoms are golden brown, 2-3 minutes. Turn, using two spatulas, and cook other side until lightly browned, 1-3 minutes. Remove and transfer to plates or keep warm on a heated platter or in baking sheet in a 200-degree oven, while you repeat with remaining batter. Add more butter and oil if necessary, always allowing the fat to get hot before adding more batter. Serve with chunky cherry-apple or other fresh fruit sauce.
Yield: 3-4 servings
3. CHUNKY CHERRY-APPLE SAUCE
5 Gala (or other sweet, flavorful) apples (about 2 pounds), peeled, cored, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup unsweetened apple juice
about 3 tablespoons cherry preserves (exact amount will vary, not only according to preference, but according to sweet/tartness of preserves and apples; sour cherry preserves are delicious here)
1. Combine apple pieces and unsweetened apple juice in a heavy large saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer until apples are very tender, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in cherry preserves.
2. Using a potato masher or fork, mash the mixture to a chunky puree. Taste, add more preserves if desired, and mash again. (Sauce may be prepared up to two days ahead. Cover and refrigerate.) Serve warm or room temperature. Or refrigerate until lightly chilled. Best not icy cold.
4. GREEK HERBED SPINACH LATKES WITH FETA-YOGURT SAUCE
2 lbs. fresh spinach, well-washed, tough stems discarded OR 2 10-ounce packages frozen leaf spinach, thawed
2 tablespoons butter
8 scallions (about 1 cup), trimmed and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
freshly ground pepper
1/3 cup (packed) fresh challah or other egg bread (crusts removed), torn in pieces
1/2 cup fresh dill leaves
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, packed
1/3 cup fresh cilantro leaves
4 large eggs, beaten to blend
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
additional butter and mild vegetable oil, like avocado or canola, for frying
Feta-Yogurt Sauce (recipe follows)
1. Cook spinach in a large saucepan with 1/4 cup lightly salted water until tender. Cool, then place in a colander and squeeze out as much liquid as possible.
2. In a medium skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Add scallions and garlic and saute until scallions are softened. Stir in spinach, season to taste with salt and pepper, and sauté about 3 minutes, or until all liquid is evaporated. Cool completely.
3. Process challah in a food processor to fine crumbs. Add spinach mixture, dill, mint, and cilantro, and pulse, using on/off turns, until finely chopped. Transfer to a large bowl. Taste, adding more salt and pepper if necessary. Mix in eggs and baking powder.
4. Heat 2 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons oil in a 10- to 12-inch heavy skillet (preferably cast-iron) over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Working in batches, drop batter by the heaping tablespoonfuls into the skillet, using the back of a spoon to flatten latkes slightly. Fry until lightly browned, about 2 minutes per side. Avoid turning more than once. Using a slotted spatula, transfer the latkes to paper towels to drain.
5. Fry remaining latkes in the same way, adding more butter and oil to the skillet as necessary, and allowing the fat to get hot before adding more batter.
6. Serve with Feta-Yogurt Sauce.
Yield: about 30 small latkes
5. FETA-YOGURT SAUCE
This sauce is also delicious served with raw or cooked vegetables, or drizzled over a salad of mixed greens.
1 cup crumbled feta
1 cup plain yogurt (preferably Greek-style)
1/3 cup chopped fresh chives
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 clove minced garlic
2 teaspoons dried oregano
freshly ground pepper
salt, if necessary
Mash feta in a medium bowl using a fork. Mix in yogurt. Stir in remaining ingredients, seasoning to taste with pepper. Taste, and add salt, if needed (the feta may be quite salty). Set aside for flavors to blend at least 2 hours before serving. (Can be made 2 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate until needed.)
6. FISH IN POTATO LATKE CRUST WITH HORSERADISH CREAM
about 1 1/2 lbs. russet (baking) or Yukon Gold potatoes, scrubbed or peeled, and cut into chunks
1 medium onion, peeled and quartered
2 large eggs
2 large cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon pepper, or to taste
2 tablespoons matzah meal or all-purpose flour, plus additional flour for dredging
olive or vegetable oil, for frying
2 lbs. flounder, lemon sole, or similar white-fleshed fish fillets, wiped with a damp paper towel and patted dry. (If the fillets are not small, cut them into long strips, so they will be easier to batter.)
Horseradish Cream (recipe follows); lemon wedges
1. In a food processor, using the grating disk, coarsely grate the potatoes together with the onion. Transfer the mixture to a strainer and drain it well, using your hands to squeeze out all excess moisture. (Don't wash out the processor yet.) Replace the grating disk with the steel blade. Return the grated mixture to the processor and add the eggs, garlic, dill, vinegar, salt, pepper, and matzah meal or flour. Process to a smooth batter. Put the batter in a large bowl.
2. Heat 1/4 inch of oil in a 10- to 12-inch heavy skillet until hot but not smoking. Spread some flour on a large sheet of wax paper or a plate. Dredge a fillet in the flour, covering it completely and shaking off the excess, then dip it into the latke batter, coating well on both sides. Quickly slide it into the hot oil. Repeat, frying a few pieces at a time, and making sure you do not crowd the pan. Fry until browned on both sides and cooked through (exact time will vary, depending on thickness of fish used). Drain on paper towels or untreated brown paper bags. Serve with Horseradish Cream and lemon wedges.
Yield: 6-8 servings
7. HORESERADISH CREAM
1/2 cup peeled, finely diced cucumber
1 cup yogurt (preferably Greek-style or drain the yogurt until thickened; regular yogurt will be too watery) or sour cream
1 large garlic clove, minced and mashed to a paste with 1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
1 tablespoon drained bottled white horseradish, or to taste
freshly ground pepper
Start the Horseradish Cream at least 1/2 hour before serving to develop the flavors. Sprinkle the cucumber with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Let stand for 10 minutes. Wrap in paper towels or a kitchen towel and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. In a small bowl, combine the cucumber with the other ingredients. Adjust the seasoning to taste. You can refrigerate the Horseradish Cream, but allow it to come to room temperature before serving.
Yield: about 1 cup