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Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2008 07:35 pm

Lighting up Hanukkah delicacies

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Try a variation on traditional potato latkes.

Hanukkah. It’s also known as the Festival of Lights. There are more important holidays in Judaism — Passover, for example. But Hanukkah has its own special place in the Jewish year, its own special significance and its own special memories and family traditions.

Hanukkah, which means “dedication,” celebrates an historical event — a miraculous one. Around 200 B.C.E., the Selucid Syrians had conquered Israel. Initially they allowed the Jewish people to remain essentially autonomous. As long as they followed the Selucids’ laws and paid them taxes, they were free to worship and live as before. But in 175 B.C.E. things changed. Antiochus IV ascended to the Selucid throne. Now Jews were put to death if they were caught practicing their faith. Thousands were massacred. The Temple in Jerusalem was looted. The Israelites were subjected to multiple indignities. Then in 167 B.C.E., Antiochus ordered that a massive statue of the chief god of the Selucids’ pantheistic religion, Zeus, be erected in the Temple, complete with an altar. For the Jews it was the last straw.

A priest named Mattathias and his five sons led a revolt. By 165 B.C.E., against unbelievable odds, they’d succeeded in driving the Selucids from Israel. By then Mattathias had died, and the victorious forces were now led by his son, Judah Maccabee. Their first priority after liberating Jerusalem was to purify and rededicate the Temple. Jewish law said the flames of the Temple’s menorah, once lit, must burn day and night and never be extinguished. But when the Maccabees entered the looted Temple, they found just a single small container of olive oil, enough for one day only. The Menorah was lit and, miraculously, burned steadily for eight days, giving them time to obtain a fresh supply of oil.

Today, Jews worldwide celebrate Hanukkah by lighting Menorahs in their homes over eight days. The Menorah has nine candles in a line. The central one is used to light the rest. On the first evening, the candle on the far right is lit. The next night the second candle, placed next to the first, is lit as well, then another the next night, and so on — always moving from right to left — until on the final night, the entire Menorah glows.

Hanukkah, then, is a celebration of oil, and foods associated with it are made with or fried in oil, though not necessarily olive oil.

Probably the best known traditional Hanukkah food is latkes. These days most latkes are pancakes made with grated potato, usually flavored with onion, but in the days of the Maccabees, potatoes were unknown. Back then latkes were cakes made with chopped vegetables — I’ve even seen a reference that suggests they sometimes used rhubarb, which doesn’t sound very appetizing to me.

Though potato latkes are most traditional nowadays, there are numerous variations. Springfield Jewish Federation Director Gloria Schwartz sometimes makes them with sweet potatoes. My husband has a great recipe for parsnip latkes. Parsnips are closely related to carrots, and parsnip latkes, like ones made with sweet potatoes, have a faint touch of sweetness to them. Good as the variations are, everyone seems to agree that it’s hard to beat the original, though. Latkes are usually topped with applesauce or sour cream. For a special treat, I sometimes put a thin slice of smoked salmon and a bit of minced chives on top of the sour cream.

Another traditional Hanukkah food is sufganiyots. That’s the Hebrew name for jelly doughnuts. Sufganiyots are thought to have originated with Sephardic Jews, who trace their lineage back to the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). When, during the Inquisition, they were driven out, they settled in Northern Africa and the Ottoman Empire. These days, sufganiyots are especially popular in Israel.

Most Hanukkah food traditions are based on individual families’ heritage. Neither David Radwine, the Sangamo Club’s general manager whose family emigrated from Russia, or Schwartz include sufganiyots in their Hanukkah meal. The biggest celebratory meal, of course, takes place on the last night, when all the candles are lit. In addition to the latkes, both serve braised beef: for Radwine, it’s brisket, for Schwartz, a pot roast. Schwartz makes her mother’s poppy seed cookies — with oil, of course.

Hanukkah is as much a family celebration as a religious one — not that the two are separate. Songs are sung, and the children spin the dreidel, a four-sided top with Hebrew letters that mean “a great miracle happened then.” It’s used in a wagering game. Legend says the dreidel was used by the Jews as a means of practicing their faith during Antiochus’ rule: if his soldiers came by, they pretended they were gambling. One of the children’s biggest Hanukkah treats is “geld,” foil-covered chocolate coins.

The dates for Hanukkah, Dec. 21-29 this year, are set according to the ancient Hebraic calendar, which means it fluctuates on our modern calendar. It’s always around the winter solstice, though, and Rabbi Jeremy Kamanovsky of New York’s Ansche Chesed congregation believes that’s not a coincidence. “Just as the world is getting darker,” Kamanovsky says, “there’s Hanukkah to fill up the dark winter nights with increasing amounts of light. Hanukkah is about bringing more light into the world. It signifies hope.”

Both Temple B’rith Sholom and Temple Israel have chocolate geld, other Hanukkah sweets, and items such as dreidels for sale during the holiday season.

Hanukkah items can be purchased at Temple B’rith Sholom (1004 S. Fourth St., 525-1360) from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, and at Temple Israel (1140 W. Governor St., 546-2841) Monday-Wednesday and Friday at the same time.

Here is David Radwine’s traditional recipe for potato latkes, which he says will serve eight as a side dish, but that typically serves four “since you can never have enough.”

POTATO LATKES

Seven medium baking potatoes, grated and drained/ squeezed of as much moisture as possible [I like to put the potatoes in a lint-free kitchen towel, roll it up and twist it to squeeze out the moisture.]

One large onion, grated

1/2 cup Matzo meal (available in ethnic sections of most grocery stores) or flour

Two eggs, lightly beaten

Salt and pepper to taste

Cooking oil, although for even better flavor, use rendered chicken, duck, or goose

Fat

Apple sauce

Sour Cream

Mix potatoes and matzo meal in a bowl. Add eggs, onion and a pinch or two of salt and pepper. Mix well. Add extra matzo meal or flour if there is too much liquid. Fry by the spoonful in heated oil in a cast iron skillet. They can be flattened a bit as they are dropped in the skillet. Cook until golden brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels. Serve with apple sauce and sour cream.

Gloria Schwartz’s mother made these cookies every year for Hanukkah. The poppy seeds give them wonderful crunch and flavor. I added a tablespoon of grated lemon peel to the dough. They’re so good, I want to make them part of my holiday tradition.

Hanukkah cookies

3/4 cup poppy seeds

4 eggs, large

1 cup salad oil (not olive)

1 cup sugar

2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. salt

4-5 cups all-purpose flour

cinnamon & sugar, optional

Combine the first four ingredients and beat well. Sift together the next three ingredients, blend with poppy seed mixture; add more flour if needed to form stiff but pliable dough. Preheat oven to 350F.

Roll out to 1/4" thickness, cut into shapes.

Transfer to oiled cookie sheets, sprinkle with cinnamon sugar if desired

Bake at 350F for about 12 minutes, until light gold. Remove from cookie sheets and cool on racks. Store in sealed tin for softer cookies, or on plates covered with wax paper for crisper ones.

Makes about 5 dozen.

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