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Family Hanukkah Celebrations Plus Recipes for Fried Chicken Cutlets

We've heard about menorahs fashioned from wicks of tattered clothes lit in eggshells, from scooped out potato halves filled with goose fat, or even, in a concentration camp, from a shoe polish tin containing a bit of machine oil. And we've read of countless ruses to outwit the evil goblins who try to prevent villagers from lighting the holiday candles. In fact and in folktales, stories abound in which Jews must struggle to celebrate Hanukkah, an eight-day family-centered festival that begins at sundown on December 19th this year.

As a minority people, Jews have always been concerned with preserving their culture, and passing it on "l'dor v'dor," from generation to generation. Like many other Jewish holidays, Hanukkah has several layers of meaning, but one that resonates especially powerfully today is the theme of assimilation: a Jewish uprising against a dominant culture. The Syrian king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, wanted to impose Hellenistic culture over all the ethnic minorities in his empire, and Judaism, along with other religions, was outlawed. The Maccabees rose in revolt, recapturing Jerusalem from his forces and rededicating the Temple he had defiled with pagan sacrifices. Hanukkah commemorates their victory.

For Americans in a pluralistic society, assimilation today has a different face. Many Jews realize that our children or their successive generations eventually may pass on only those traditions that speak to them. So if it is important to us that our families continue to practice Hanukkah, we have to create vivid Hanukkah memories for them.

Is Hanukkah perfunctorily screwing another bulb into an electric menorah, which is then set somewhere away from the TV and forgotten for the rest of the evening? If the ritual becomes rote, can we expect our children and other generations to continue practicing it with their own families--whether intermarried or not--when we are not around? And though I am a food writer, I know that even the most scrumptious latkes (including my crispy shallot ones, lightly dusted, as Grandma Rebecca did, with sugar) alone are not enough to create powerful Hanukkah memories to last from generation to generation.

Every family discovers its own ways to make the holidays meaningful. For us, raising our daughter in an open environment where we celebrated the festivals of diverse cultures along with our own has enriched the traditions of our Judaic heritage--especially Hanukkah.

Until high school, Alex attended an international school in New York City. Every year as the days grew shorter and winter's breath chilled the nights, different festivals of light brightened our calendar. The Christian St. Lucia Day and Christmas, the Hindu Diwali, African-American Kwanzaa, and of course, Hanukkah--for each, celebratory lights formed a transcendent image against the darkness. In a season of miracles, that tiny burning vial of sanctified oil the Maccabees used to rededicate the Temple--which miraculously lasted eight days--is a metaphor for the triumph of hope over despair.

Over the years, the Hanukkahs we have celebrated with Alex have changed a lot. We no longer read myriad holiday stories and act them out. We rarely have time to prepare a special sweet treat--and now we'd probably think twice about the extra calories.

But Hanukkah remains magical for her, and this year she has invited her Asian-American boyfriend, completely unfamiliar with the holiday, to share our celebration with us. We'll light several menorahs: the huge silver embossed one we bought the year she turned thirteen; the skinny one that holds only tiny birthday candles; the old brass menorah, filled with rainbow candles. And most important, the one made from objects found around the house--not Playmobils and Legos anymore, but perhaps an assemblage of Grandma's china teacups fitted out with soft, fragrant beeswax candles from our local greenmarket.

We'll turn out the electric lights, and in that blaze of flames we have created, we'll enjoy a leisurely meal of delicate Italian-Jewish fried chicken, savory latkes, and each other's company. And for us, that is the meaning and the miracle of Hanukkah.

Fried Chicken Cutlets, Italian-Jewish Style
Fried chicken lightly flavored with cinnamon is a traditional Hanukkah specialty in Italy. Used without any sweetening, the cinnamon acts in concert here with savory garlic and lemon to produce a very fragrant yet subtle marinade.

To accentuate the delicacy of the dish, I dip the chicken in egg after dusting it lightly with matzoh meal. And I fry each batch with a few pieces of celery--a trick sent in to Cook's Illustrated Magazine by one of its readers--which makes the chicken beautifully golden and more flavorful.

Ingredients
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 large garlic cloves (about 1 1/2 tablespoons), chopped fine
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus additional for frying cutlets
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 lbs. skinless, boneless chicken cutlets, trimmed of fat and gristle
about 1 cup matzoh meal
2 large eggs
2-3 celery stalks, including leaves, washed, dried well, and cut into 4- to 5-inch chunks
lemon wedges
fresh parsley sprigs, for garnish (optional)

1. In a large mixing bowl or non-reactive baking dish, whisk together the cinnamon, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the chicken and toss to coat thoroughly. Cover and allow to marinate two to three hours in the refrigerator, turning the chicken occasionally.

2. Set up a work station near the stove. Spread 1 cup matzoh meal on a large sheet of wax paper or a plate and season it with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper, or to taste. Next to it, in a wide shallow bowl or pie pan, beat the eggs with a few drops of water until well blended and smooth.

3. Dredge the cutlets well with the matzoh meal, rubbing it lightly into the chicken. Make sure each cutlet is covered all over with meal. If necessary, add more matzoh meal, remembering to add more seasoning.

4. Heat about 1/2 cup olive oil in a 10- to 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat until it is hot and fragrant but not smoking. Shake a cutlet to remove all excess matzoh meal, then coat it thoroughly with the egg and slip it quickly into the hot oil. Being careful not to crowd the pan, add more chicken, dipping each piece in the egg just before placing it in the pan. Slip a few pieces of celery in between the cutlets as they fry. Using two spatulas (tongs would ruin the delicate egg coating), carefully turn the chicken when it is light golden, 2-3 minutes. Saute the other side for 2-3 minutes longer, or until cooked through. Turn the celery pieces when you turn the chicken. Transfer the cutlets to a platter lined with paper towels so they can drain. Discard the cooked celery. Keep the chicken warm in a 200 degree oven until the remaining pieces are done. Continue frying any remaining chicken in batches, in the same way, adding fresh celery to the pan with each batch. Wipe out the skillet and replace the oil if some of the coating falls off and burns.

Serve the chicken right away, accompanied by the lemon wedges and garnished, if you'd like, with fresh parsley. It really needs no sauce.

Yield: about 3 to 4 servings.

Classic Potato Pancakes

Ingredients
about 1 1/2 lbs. Yukon Gold or 3 large russet (baking) potatoes, peeled
1/2 lb. onions
1 large egg, beaten
1 tablespoon matzoh meal or all-purpose unbleached flour
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
olive oil for frying

accompaniments: applesauce (heavenly when freshly made) and/or sour cream

1. Coarsely shred the potatoes and the onion, using the grating disk in a food processor. (Don't wash out the food processor--you'll be using it again right away.) Transfer the mixture to a colander or strainer and use your hands or a wooden spoon to press out as much moisture as possible.

2. Remove the grating disk from the processor and replace with the steel blade. Return about 1/3 of the shredded potatoes and onions to the work bowl of the food processor, and process, using the pulse motion, until roughly pureed, then transfer to a large bowl. Add the remaining shredded potatoes and onions from the colander, and the egg, matzoh meal or flour, salt, pepper, and baking powder. Mix until thoroughly combined.

3. In a heavy, 10- to 12-inch skillet (cast-iron is ideal), heat about 1/4-inch of oil over high heat until it is hot but not smoking. Drop 1/4 cup of the potato latke batter into the pan, and flatten with a spatula. Repeat with more batter, cooking no more than 4 or 5 latkes at a time; crowding the pan will give you soggy latkes.

4. Regulate the heat carefully, reducing it to medium as the latkes fry until golden and crisp on the bottom, about 4 minutes. To prevent 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.

5. It's best to flip the latkes only once, so that they don't absorb too much oil. So, before turning, lift the latkes slightly with the spatula to make sure the underside is crisp and brown.

6. As the latkes are done, transfer them to paper towels or untreated brown paper bags to drain.

7. Continue making latkes in the same manner 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.

Serve straightaway, accompanied by applesauce or sour cream. If it is necessary to 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.

Yield: about 4 servings

Garlic-Rosemary Potato Latkes

These exceptionally fragrant potato pancakes require no topping or sauce as adornment: they are perfect as is, ready to accompany any roasted or grilled chicken or meat.

Ingredients
about 1 1/2 lbs. Yukon Gold or 3 large russet potatoes, peeled
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves
1 large egg, beaten
1 tablespoon matzoh meal or all-purpose unbleached flour
3/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
olive oil for frying

1. Coarsely shred the potatoes, using the grating disk in a food processor. (Don't wash out the food processor--you'll be using it again right away.) Transfer the potatoes to a colander or strainer and use your hands or a wooden spoon to press out as much moisture as possible.

2. 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. Add the garlic and rosemary and process, using pulse motion, until roughly pureed. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl. Add the remaining shredded potatoes from the colander, the egg, matzoh meal or flour, salt, pepper, and baking powder. Mix until thoroughly combined.

3. In a heavy, 10- to 12-inch skillet (cast-iron is ideal), heat about 1/4-inch of oil over high heat until it is hot but not smoking. Drop 1/4 cup of the latke batter into the pan, and flatten with a spatula. Repeat with more batter, cooking no more than 4 or 5 latkes at a time; crowding the pan will give you soggy latkes.

4. Regulate the heat carefully, reducing it to medium as the latkes fry until golden and crisp on the bottom, about 4 minutes. To prevent 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.

5. It's best to flip the latkes only once, so that they don't absorb too much oil. So, before turning, lift the latkes slightly with the spatula to make sure the underside is crisp and brown.

6. As the latkes are done, transfer them to paper towels or untreated brown paper bags to drain.

7. Continue making latkes in the same manner 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.

Serve straightaway. If it is necessary to 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.

Yield: about 4 servings

Crispy Shallot Latkes with Sugar Dusting

Not Mallomars, S'Mores or Rice Krispie Treats. My secret childhood sweet was crispy, hot potato latkes sprinkled with sugar, the way my grandmother made them. She knew that a latke's beauty is fleeting: irresistible hot, they turn charmless and sodden cold. Why rush along the process with cool toppings, like sour cream and applesauce? Besides, the unlikely alliance of flavors still delights, even after all these years when former loves, like sweet and sour stuffed cabbage and red-hot cinnamon candies no longer give me a tickle.

Don't go overboard with the sugar--a little goes a long way. Use superfine or regular, not confectioner's, sugar and sprinkle it on when the latkes are very hot so it doesn't form a powdery mantle, but really melts in. Or serve the latkes unadorned, and offer guests pretty little salt shakers filled with sugar.

You can, of course, have the latkes with the more traditional sour cream and applesauce, but do try the sugar once.

Ingredients
1 1/2 cups shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or fine-quality olive oil
about 1 1/2 lbs russet (baking) or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled
1 large egg, beaten
about 3/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon matzoh meal or flour
olive oil for frying
sugar, preferably superfine, for dusting
optional accompaniments: sour cream, applesauce

1. In a heavy, medium saucepan, cook the shallots in the butter or olive oil over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until golden and crispy, about 15 minutes. Drain on paper towels and allow to cool.

2. 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.)

3. 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 matzoh meal or flour. Stir in the shallots. Mix until thoroughly combined.

4. 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.

5. 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.)

6. Transfer the cooked latkes to paper towels or untreated brown paper bags to drain and sprinkle them lightly with sugar (I use a scant 1/2 teaspoon for each). 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.

7. 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.

8. Pass additional sugar when serving (little salt shakers filled with sugar are attractive and make it less likely that a guest will dump an inedible amount of sugar on a latke), and if desired, accompany the latkes with sour cream and applesauce.

Yield: 4 servings

Mediterranean Chickpea Latkes

To serve these as an accompaniment to meat or poultry: gloss with a thin slick of pomegranate molasses or stir a few spoons of pomegranate molasses into good applesauce, and pass along with the latkes. To serve with fish or vegetarian meals, stir crushed dried mint into labneh (thick Middle Eastern yogurt), sour cream, or crème fraiche, and place dollops on the latkes. If desired, drizzle squiggles of pomegranate molasses attractively over the labneh or sour cream.

Either way, garnish with fresh pomegranate seeds for a gorgeous burst of color.

Ingredients
1 1/2 cups (15-ounce can) cooked chickpeas, rinsed and drained
2 teaspoons coarsely chopped garlic
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
olive oil for frying

1. Puree the chickpeas, garlic, and rosemary in a food processor to a coarse paste. Add olive oil, eggs, and 6 tablespoons water and blend until smooth. Add cumin, salt, pepper, flour, and baking powder and pulse to blend well. Transfer the batter to a large bowl.

2. Heat 6 tablespoons of oil in a 10- to 12-inch heavy skillet (preferably cast-iron) over medium-high heat until hot, but not smoking. Working in batches, drop batter by heaping tablespoonfuls into hot oil and fry until golden on both sides. Drain on paper towels or untreated brown paper bags. Repeat with remaining batter, adding more oil to skillet by tablespoonfuls as necessary, allowing oil to get hot before adding the batter.

Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE.
Jayne Cohen

Jayne Cohen's newest book is Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover's Treasury of Classics and Improvisations, published by John Wiley and Sons in February 2008.

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