Hanukkah : The Hanukkah-Latke Connection

For Jews infatuated with the gastronomic side of Judaism, Hanukkah, which begins at sundown Sunday, is the preferred holiday, primarily because of the food served--crispy latkes.

What exactly is the Hanukkah-latke connection? How has the food come to wag the festival?

Hanukkah celebrates the victory for religious freedom won by the Jewish Maccabees over Antiochus of Syria more than 2,100 years ago. Upon returning to the ransacked Temple, the Maccabees found just a little bit of sacred oil that miraculously lit the Temple menorah for the eight days it took to prepare more oil for the eternal lights. The word latke comes from the Russian oladka or olad'ia , meaning a sort of pancake or fritter, which goes back to the Middle Greek word eladion , a cake fried in olive oil.

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It is difficult to equal the taste of brown, crisp potato latkes served with sour cream or homemade applesauce. Moreover, as contrasted with other traditional Jewish culinary staples such as gefilte fish, every latke lover seems to know how to make these potato pancakes and has strong opinions about them. One will swear by a medium-holed grater, another by the larger variety. Some prefer pepper; others, salt. Some add apples, others onions or parsley. And then, of course, there are the purists who contend that only old potatoes will do because new ones don't have enough starch.

Kartoflani platske is the term used to describe a potato pancake in Ukraine. It is probably the same food that the Jews living in the Pale of Settlement in the 17th Century adapted for Hanukkah. Because their daily diet consisted of boiled potatoes and bread, they wanted to dress the potatoes differently for the holiday and thus made a dish cooked in oil to symbolize the main miracle of Hanukkah. This potato pancake, already used by Ukrainians with goose for Christmas, seemed a good and relatively inexpensive choice. Schmaltz , made of rendered goose fat, was the obvious choice of oils.

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Sephardic (Mediterranean) Jews have their own Hanukkah traditions. Like the Jews in Ukraine, their culinary customs were probably taken from the surrounding people. Greek Jews claim their loukomades (deep-fried puffs dipped in honey or sprinkled with powdered sugar) are more like the cakes the Maccabees ate, while the Persian Jews believe their lattice-shapped fritters called zulbiya are more similar. The Israeli sufganiot are basically raised jelly doughnuts and probably adapted from these same traditions.

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Latkes are even more complicated today. They have become a versatile delicacy and designer latkes are crisscrossing the country. These high-fashion potato fritters can be laced with green onions, spinach, zucchini, carrots, apples, and sometimes topped with goat cheese. They are served for breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner or even as cocktail party fare throughout the year. They are a welcome treat, eaten plain or fancy; alone or along with brisket, chops, sauerbraten or chicken soup; topped with sugar, applesauce, sour cream or even salsa.

Whatever the ingredients, however they are made and whenever they are eaten, the best latkes are thin and crisp. One of the tricks to making them this way is to squeeze out as much liquid as possible from the grated potato. Add a small amount of flour or matzo meal as filler, if desired, and then gently flatten and cook the pancakes on a very hot skillet. The colder the potato-vegetable combination and the hotter the skillet, the less fat there will be in the final product.

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With the aroma of these pancakes sizzling on the griddle and eager fingers nibbling at the occasional slightly misshaped finished product before it ever makes it to the table, the holiday is always a much-anticipated pleasure.

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Rose Zawid, a Holocaust survivor who runs a boardinghouse in Atlantic City, N.J., makes an applesauce with cranberries that is a good complement to latkes served with meat. The cranberries add flavor and make the applesauce turn slightly rosy.

ROSE ZAWID'S APPLESAUCE WITH CRANBERRIES

3/4 pound fresh cranberries, picked over

1 1/2 cups water

3/4 cup sugar, or to taste

4 pounds apples, unpeeled, quartered and cored

Place cranberries, water, sugar and apples in saucepan. Cover and simmer until apples are soft, 20 minutes. Cool slightly. Press mixture through food mill. Adjust sugar to taste and serve. Makes about 8 cups.

Each 1-tablespoon serving contains about:

14 calories; 0 sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 4 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.11 gram fiber.

EFRAT RABINOVICH'S POTATO PANCAKES WITH APPLES

1 pound russet potatoes, peeled

1 apple, peeled and cored

1 large egg

1/4 cup flour

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Oil for frying

Powdered sugar

Grate potatoes and apple into mixing bowl, working quickly to avoid discoloration. Squeeze out any accumulated liquid. Quickly add egg, flour, salt and pepper to taste. Mix thoroughly.

Heat about 1/2 inch oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Drop in batter using 3 tablespoonfuls per pancake and flatten slightly with spatula. Fry 3 to 4 minutes until first side is brown, then flip pancakes and cook until second side is brown. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve. Makes 10 (3-inch) pancakes.

Each pancake contains about:

68 calories; 38 mg sodium; 21 mg cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 12 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.26 gram fiber.

ISRAELI SPINACH FRITTERS

2 pounds fresh spinach, stemmed, or arugula

1 pound zucchini, peeled, optional

1 pound potatoes, peeled

1 onion

2 large eggs

1/2 cup flour

1 teaspoon ground cumin, or to taste

1 teaspoon dried ground coriander, or to taste

1 teaspoon ground white pepper

1 tablespoon salt, or to taste

Oil for frying

Carefully rinse spinach, then dry thoroughly and finely chop. Set aside.

Grate zucchini, potatoes and onion into large mixing bowl. Alternating onion will help keep potatoes from discoloring as you work. Squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Add chopped spinach, eggs, flour, cumin, coriander, white pepper and salt. Mix thoroughly.

Heat about 1/2 inch oil in skillet until hot. Drop in batter using 2 tablespoonfuls per pancake and flatten slightly with spatula. Fry several minutes on each side until golden. Drain on paper towels. Makes 24 (3-inch) patties.

Each patty contains about:

54 calories; 329 mg sodium; 18 mg cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 8 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.61 gram fiber.

China in the latke photo was created by Julianna Babi Balogh, Montclair.

Food styling by Donna Deane and Mayi Brady

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