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WINTER 2004  
Vol. 33, No. 2

WHAT'S COOKING?
The Ultimate Latke
& Other Delights

by Tina Wasserman

I love fried foods. Though the thought of using a quart of oil in a single recipe makes me queasy, the crispy edges of golden potato latkes and the comforting scent of warm dough commingled with vanilla and spices of a freshly fried doughnut make my heart flutter. On the other hand, a regular diet of these Chanukah specialties might make my heart stop beating altogether!

How did oil come to figure so prominently in Chanukah cooking? As you might know, its use derives from the oft-retold story of how a day's worth of oil--all that was left to rededicate the Temple following the Maccabean victory over the Assyrians--miraculously lasted for eight days. Some modern rabbinic scholars have suggested that the story of this miracle, which, interestingly, is not recounted in the Book of Maccabees, was introduced 600 years later in talmudic times (Gemara Shabbat 21b) to fortify the Jewish people with faith and hope during the Middle Ages, a time of relentless persecution. But whatever its origins, lighting the menorah--and cooking with oil during Chanukah--reminds us symbolically that we can prevail over our persecutors through the power of our faith in God.

Today, all international Jewish cuisines have oil-cooked food as part of their Chanukah menus. Sephardic Jews enjoy bimuelos, fried balls of dough soaked in rosewater-scented syrup. Moroccan Jews feast on sfenj, orange-scented doughnut-like fritters. Iraqi Jews eat zalabia, fried spirals of yeast dough. Israel's national Chanukah dish is soufganyiot, jelly doughnuts.

Cheese and potatoes are also linked with Chanukah. The cheese connection goes back to the Book of Judith, which recounts how this heroine saved the Jewish people by feeding salty cheesecakes to the Syrian general Holefernes and then offering him more and more wine to quench his thirst. After he passed out, she slayed him. This incident is said to have taken place long before the Maccabean revolt, but medieval Jews associated this story--another instance of the Jews overcoming a powerful enemy--with Chanukah, and thus did cheese became associated with the Festival of Lights.

As for potatoes, they were introduced to Europe in the late 16th century because they were inexpensive and--along with oil and poultry fat--readily available. With these three foods, even the poorest peasant had the means to celebrate Chanukah.

However you may celebrate the holiday, eat in good health!

Corn Fritters

I have been teaching this recipe for more than thirty years; my students just love it--and so do I! If you balk at the 1 cup- of oil, consider that the amount of oil per fritter is actually equivalent to just 1 teaspoon--an average cookie contains more fat than that!

  • 1 12-ounce can of vacuum-packed corn
  • 3/4 cup milk, more if needed
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 Tablespoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup corn or peanut oil
  • Maple syrup
  1. Drain the corn over a measuring cup. Gently press down on the corn to extract as much liquid as possible.
  2. Add enough milk to the corn liquid to measure 1 cup.
  3. Mix the sugar and the egg with the milk mixture. Add the corn and set aside.
  4. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a 2-quart bowl. Add the corn-milk mixture, stirring just until the ingredients are moistened.
  5. In a 2-quart saucepan, heat the 1 cup of oil to 375°F. Using a tablespoon measuring spoon, scoop up a heaping tablespoon of corn batter and then let the dough drop free-form off the spoon into the hot oil. Be sure to fry no more than 4 or 5 fritters at a time (otherwise the temperature of the oil will drop significantly and the fritters will be greasy).
  6. Using a slotted spoon, splash the top of the fritters with hot oil. This will make your dough puff up on top before you flip it over.
  7. When the bottoms of the fritters are golden (about 2 minutes), flip the fritters over and cook for about 1-2 minutes more, until again the bottoms are golden. Using a slotted spoon, place the fritters on paper towels and drain.
  8. Serve your 2 dozen fritters with maple syrup as a vegetable side dish for dinner or as a new breakfast food.

Tina's Tidbits:

  • Always crumple paper towels into a loose ball before placing them on a platter for draining food. This creates a larger surface area for oil absorption and renders the fried food less greasy. Five towels crumpled absorb much more than 5 paper towels layered.
  • Oil used for frying (foods other than fish) may be cooled, strained, and stored in the refrigerator for future use, so long as the oil doesn't contain a significant amount of moisture from the fried food. Watered-down oil will not make for good frying.

Potato Pancakes or Kugel

Many years ago I worked for the largest kosher caterer in Philadelphia. I was fascinated with the crispiness of their latkes. How did they do it? The following recipe is the result of my quest for the "ultimate" latke. As a bonus, I found the mixture makes a great potato kugel too, with a little help from some good old-fashioned schmaltz (chicken fat).

  • 6 large potatoes, preferably California Long White or Yukon Gold
  • 2 large potatoes, peeled, cooked, and mashed--optional
  • 3 eggs, beaten well
  • 1 Tablespoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1/2 cup matzo or cracker meal
  • 1 large onion, grated
  • 1/4 cup oil or rendered chicken fat (if making kugel)
  • Oil for frying (if making latkes)

Making Latkes

  1. Grate the raw, unpeeled potatoes using the grating disk on your processor, then place them in a colander and rinse thoroughly with cold running water. Drain.
  2. Grate the onion with the processor grating blade. Change to the cutting blade and add 1/4 of the grated potatoes. Pulse on and off to make a coarse paste. Place this mixture and the grated raw potatoes in a 4-quart bowl. Mix in the mashed potato if using.
  3. Add the eggs and all the remaining ingredients, except for the 1/4 cup of oil (that's only for the kugel).
  4. Heat a 10-inch skillet over high heat for 30 seconds. Add the oil to a depth of 1/4 inch. Heat for another 30 seconds or until a drop of potato batter sizzles in the pan.
  5. Drop the mounds of potato mixture into the pan. Do not flatten. Fry on both sides, about 3 minutes per side or until crisp and golden.
  6. Drain on a platter lined with 5 paper towels crumpled loosely into mounds.
  7. Serve your kugel or approximately 3 dozen latkes with applesauce and sour cream.

Making Kugel

  1. Follow steps 1 & 2 above.
  2. Add the eggs and all the remaining ingredients (including the 1/4 cup of oil or chicken fat).
  3. Oil a 2-quart casserole and pour the mixture into the pan.
  4. Drizzle 1 Tablespoon oil over the top and bake in a preheated 350°F oven for 45 minutes or until the top is crisp and golden.

Tina's Tidbits:

  • There are 2 secrets to preventing gray/black potato latkes: always rinse the grated potatoes to wash away excess starch and use a firm, non-mealy potato. A russet will turn black faster than other potatoes--even with rinsing.
  • Never grate your onion with your potato. You will lose much of the great onion flavor in the draining.
  • Potatoes require more salt than any other vegetable because they absorb it readily, so don't skimp.
  • Because potatoes absorb salt, you can add a cut potato to a pot of soup or stew you find too salty. After 45 minutes of cooking, you can remove the cut potato and taste the difference.

Applesauce

This recipe should be in every home's repertoire. It doesn't get fresher than this, and it's so easy to make, especially if you have a food mill.

  • 4-6 medium apples (Macintosh, Fuji, or Golden Delicious)
  • 1/4-1/2 cup water
  • 2-inch cinnamon stick or 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup sugar (optional)
  1. Core the apples and cut into eighths.
  2. Cover the bottom of a 3-quart pot with 1/2-inch water. Add the apples and the cinnamon stick, cover the pot, and simmer for 15 minutes or until apples are very tender.
  3. Remove the cinnamon stick and reserve the water from the pot.
  4. Place the apples in the basket of a food mill and pass the apples through the medium disk, leaving the skins in the basket. You can also remove the skins by hand with a spoon, then mash until the mixture is a coarse puree or strain through a strainer or colander.
  5. Add enough reserved liquid to the apples to thin the puree without making it soupy. The mixture will thicken as it cools, returning to the applesauce some of the nutrients lost in the cooking water.
  6. Serve warm, or chill for one hour in the refrigerator (then add cooking liquid to thin the mixture as needed)
  7. Taste, add sugar if necessary, and enjoy!

Tina's Tidbits:

  • Because the perfume cells of the apple are in the skin, when making applesauce always keep the apple skins on until the mashing. The sauce will be naturally sweeter.
  • The pectin in apple skin is also a natural thickener, and cooking apples with their skins on gives the sauce a rosy color.

Tina D. Wasserman, a member of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas, has been teaching at her own cooking school for more than thirty years and writes a kosher cooking newsletter on the Internet.

Reform Resources

Designed specifically for parents, the Union's Jewish Parent Page offers information about all the Jewish holidays (historical background and contemporary customs) as well as blessings, recipes, family activities, and more.


Any Questions About These Recipes?

Tina will be delighted to assist you. E-mail AskTina@urj.org.


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