Jewish holiday meals are often oozing with symbolism, and Hanukkah is no exception.
The festival, which begins this year at sundown on Dec. 22, celebrates ancient Jews’ victory over an oppressor and commemorates a miracle in the aftermath of battle. In the desecrated Temple in Jerusalem, enough oil to light a candelabra for only one day astonishingly burned for eight.
On holiday tables worldwide, foods fried in oil represent the marvel that occurred that week more than 2,200 years ago.
“Many Jewish holidays have symbolic foods, which is part of what gives Jewish rites of passage a lot of sensory memory and pleasure about them,” said Alana Newhouse, editor of the 2019 “The 100 Most Jewish Foods.”
In America, perhaps the most visible of those symbolic deep-fried foods is the latke, a pancake of grated potatoes and onions, bound with egg and fried to a crisp like a hockey-puck-sized hash brown. Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe popularized the dish, now available on many American delis’ and diners’ year-round menus, served with sour cream and applesauce.
“It’s very hard to eat a latke and not think about grease,” said Newhouse.
But a potato isn’t the only ingredient worth frying. All manner of fritters, both sweet and savory, would be right at home at a Hanukkah dinner. Breaded proteins and deep-fried doughs also work. Sufganiyot, jelly doughnuts brought to Israel by Polish Jews, are a Hanukkah staple in that country and, increasingly, here.
“It was interesting to me to learn just how much Jews fry food, both for Hanukkah but also year-round,” said Leah Koenig, the author of several books on Jewish cooking, including the encyclopedic “The Jewish Cookbook,” which has a whole chapter on fritters and savory pastries eaten by Jews all over the globe. “There are a lot of things that are latke-adjacent.”
While she stays true to her family’s latkes-and-brisket tradition, Koenig recommends an international Hanukkah meal of Roman-style fried artichokes, and green-flecked chicken, green onion and ginger fritters from Calcutta called arook tahine. In fact, with recipes for Turkish leek fritters, Italian sweet rice fritters and Syrian herb omelet fritters, you could put together a “global latke table,” Koenig said.
Iraqi Jews will eat savory handheld turnovers, called sambusak, on Hanukkah. Stuffed with a cheese filling, the easy-to-make pastries can be baked. But fried in oil, the dough becomes a chewy puff that merges with the melty filling. It’s a heavenly appetizer served hot.
Newhouse’s grandmother, who hailed from Macedonia, often made a leek-and-lamb patty, seasoned with cinnamon, allspice and cayenne pepper. Newhouse learned later that these keftes de prasa were a Hanukkah specialty because they, too, were fried.
“It comes out of the whole schmaltz universe of thinking,” Newhouse said.
California-raised, Israel-based cookbook author Adeena Sussman also uses oil as her guide for the holiday. In her book “Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors From My Israeli Kitchen,” find recipes for her Hanukkah favorites, such as broccoli and cottage cheese pancakes, pistachio-lemon bars made with both olive and coconut oils, and Moroccan deep-fried flower-shaped pastries called shabakia.
She also suggests making a bread spread of garlic confit, which can be used in salad dressing or as a rub for a roast chicken. “The resulting garlic oil, fragrant yet mild, is a multiuse Hanukkah miracle of its own,” she said.
For a holiday main course, try Sussman’s sesame schnitzel, a crisp chicken cutlet that’s been seasoned with dukkah, an Egyptian hazelnut and spice blend that’s also delicious atop hummus.
In Israel, jelly doughnuts are a “major craze,” said Sussman, “with bakeries attempting to outdo one another with outlandish flavors like dulce de leche and nutella-filled doughnuts, or assorted syrups injected into the doughnuts with plastic syringes.”
But while they’re iconic, they’re not to everyone’s liking. In “The 100 Most Jewish Foods,” subtitled “A Highly Debatable List” for good reason, famed Israeli-English chef Yotam Ottolenghi called the doughnut “a greasy, tacky, sugary oddball, injected with smooth, gummy red jam that hasn’t seen a single berry in its life: This could easily be shortlisted for the worst Jewish foods, quite possibly topping the list.”
For a twist on the jelly doughnut, skip the jelly, go smaller, and try bimuelos, doughnut-hole fritters that originated as a Hanukkah dessert among Sephardic Jews in pre-Inquisition Spain. Koenig has a recipe for them in another of her books from 2019 (she had a busy year), “Little Book of Jewish Sweets.” Typically topped with sugar or honey, Koenig dusts them with cardamom for a warming hint of spice — her own spin.
“I think people get really hung up on Hanukkah foods having to be a specific thing,” she said.
“But what binds everything together is the use of the oil. Use Hanukkah as a time to play and celebrate.”
CRISPY SESAME SCHNITZEL
Note: To add extra seasoning to your schnitzel, add 1/4 cup dukkah (see recipe) to the breadcrumb mixture. From: “Sababa,” by Adeena Sussman.
1 cup dried regular breadcrumbs
1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1 teaspoon fine sea salt, divided, plus more for seasoning
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided, plus more for seasoning
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more if you like it hot
2 leggs, beaten
1/2 cup flour
4 (6-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
1/2 cup vegetable oil, for frying, plus more as needed
In a shallow dish, combine the dried breadcrumbs, panko, sesame seeds, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, garlic powder, paprika, 1/4 teaspoon of the black pepper, and the cayenne. Place the beaten eggs in another shallow dish.
In a third shallow dish, combine the flour with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper.
Season the chicken generously with salt and black pepper. Place each piece between 2 pieces of plastic wrap and pound lightly with a mallet to achieve a thickness anywhere between 1/8 and 1/4 inch. If you prefer your schnitzels to be smaller, this is the time to halve them.
Line a sheet tray with parchment. Dredge the cutlets in the flour, then the egg, then the breadcrumb mixture, shaking off the excess after each step and pressing the crumbs in firmly on both sides. Arrange them on the sheet tray as you finish the breading process. If desired, wait 30 minutes before frying (this helps the crumbs adhere better).
In a heavy skillet, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes; the oil should be hot but not smoking. Working in batches, lay 2 cutlets in the pan and fry until the underside is golden brown and crisp, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip and fry for 2 to 3 more minutes. Drain on paper towels, season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve hot.
Nutrition information per serving: 750 calories, 43 g fat, 920 mg sodium, 39 g carbohydrates, 8 g saturated fat, 2 g added sugars, 50 g protein, 200 mg cholesterol, 3 g dietary fiber
Exchanges per serving: 1 starch, 1 1/2 carb, 7 lean protein, 6 fat.
Makes about 3/4 cup.
Note: Dukkah is an Egyptian spice blend used as a topping. Hazelnuts can be swapped for almonds, pistachios or peanuts. From: “Sababa,” by Adeena Sussman.
1 cup hazelnuts, preferably blanched
1/2 cup raw white sesame seeds
3 tablespoons whole coriander seeds — 3 tbsp. whole cumin seeds
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Place the hazelnuts on a rimmed baking sheet and toast until the nuts are lightly browned, 9 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool completely. If the nuts have skins on them, rub them between two clean kitchen towels to remove and discard as much of the loose, papery skins as possible (if you don’t get them all, it’s OK).
While the hazelnuts are roasting, toast the sesame seeds in a medium, dry skillet over medium heat, stirring often, until golden and fragrant, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a plate to cool.
Add the coriander and cumin seeds to the same skillet and toast until fragrant and the seeds begin to pop, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer to a separate plate to cool.
Grind the cumin and coriander in a spice grinder until powdery and transfer to the bowl of a food processor. Add the hazelnuts, pepper, sugar, and salt and process until the mixture looks like fine sand, being careful not to overprocess the nuts into paste, 15 to 20 seconds.
Transfer to a bowl and add the sesame seeds. Store in an airtight container in a cool place for up to 1 month.
CHEESE SAMBUSAK (TURNOVERS)
Makes about 2 dozen.
Note: From: “The Jewish Cookbook,” by Leah Koenig.
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 1/2 cups flour
8 ounces crumbled feta cheese
4 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated
1/2 teaspoon onion powder, optional
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Flour, for dusting
1 egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water
Sesame seeds, for topping, optional
To make the dough: In a large bowl, whisk together the oil, 1/2 cup water, egg, and salt until well combined and foamy. Stir in the flour, a little at a time, until a soft dough forms (you might not use the full 2 1/2 cups). Form the dough into a disc, wrap with plastic wrap, and let sit at room temperature while making the filling.
To make the filling: In a food processor, combine the feta, Parmesan, eggs, onion powder (if using), salt and pepper and pulse until a thick paste forms.
To assemble: Pinch off a walnut-size piece of dough and roll it into a ball. Working on a lightly floured surface, roll it out into a 4-inch round. Place a heaping tablespoon of the filling into the middle of the round. Fold one side of the round over to the other to make a half-moon, pinching it tightly to seal the filling inside. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.
Line a large plate with two layers of paper towel. In a large saucepan, heat 2 inches vegetable oil over medium heat. Gently slip the turnovers into the hot oil in batches of 4 or 5 and fry until golden brown, flipping once halfway through, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer the fried sambusak to the paper towels to drain.
Nutrition information per each of 24: 210 calories, 6 g fat, 310 mg sodium, 11 g carbohydrates, 4 g saturated fat, 0 g added sugars, 5 g protein, 40 mg cholesterol, 0 g dietary fiber
Exchanges per serving: 1 starch, 1 fat.
BIMUELOS (CARDAMOM-SUGAR FRITTERS)
Note: From “Little Book of Jewish Sweets,” by Leah Koenig.
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar, divided
3/4 cup warm water
3 to 4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 large egg yolks
1/4 cup milk or almond milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Vegetable oil for frying
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Stir together the yeast, 1 tsp. of the sugar, and the warm water in a large bowl, and let sit until bubbling and frothy, 5 to 10 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk together 3 cups of the flour, the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, the cardamom, and salt in a separate bowl. Stir the egg yolks, milk and vanilla into the yeast mixture. Add the flour mixture in two additions, stirring until the dough begins to come together.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead, adding up to 1 cup of flour, a little at a time, until the dough is smooth and supple, 5 to 10 minutes. (You may not need all of the flour.) The kneading can also be done in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook for 5 to 7 minutes.
Rub about 1 tsp. of vegetable oil around the large bowl; place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and let the dough sit in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.
Line a large plate with paper towels. Add oil to a medium saucepan until it’s about 1 1/2 inches deep and set the pan over the medium heat until the temperature reaches 365 on a candy or deep-frying thermometer. Working in batches of five or six, pinch off walnut-size pieces of dough, roll each into a ball shape, and drop into the hot oil. Fry, flipping once, until puffed, golden and cooked through, 2 to 4 minutes total. Transfer with a slotted spoon to the prepared plate to drain.
Make the cardamom sugar: Stir together the sugar, cardamom and cinnamon in a large bowl. Working in batches, add the warm bimuelos to the mixture and toss to coat. Serve immediately.
Nutrition information per serving: 540 calories, 21 g fat, 170 mg sodium, 81 g carbohydrates, 4 g saturated fat, 31 g added sugars, 8 g protein, 60 mg cholesterol, 3 g dietary fiber
Exchanges per serving: 3 starch, 2 1/2 carb, 3 1/2 fat.
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