As a child in Hebrew school, I was taught the story of the Hanukkah miracle: When the Jews in the land of Israel defeated the foreigners, the priests seeking to rekindle the temple’s eternal light found enough ritually pure oil for only one day. Miraculously that oil lasted for eight days.
Since then, Jews have been celebrating Hanukkah every year by lighting candles every day for eight days. Children in Israel play with dreidels inscribed with the first Hebrew letters of the phrase “a big miracle happened here”; in Washington, D.C., my birthplace, our dreidels had the first letters of “a big miracle happened there.”
Until I lived in Israel, I associated the holiday with latkes, or potato pancakes. But when I moved there I discovered that for many Israelis, sufganiyot, or jelly doughnuts, are the favorite Hanukkah treat. I also realized that the connection of such foods to Hanukkah is the oil in which they are fried.
What we hadn’t learned in Hebrew school was that the oil of the Hanukkah miracle was olive oil. In ancient Israel, olive oil was used for lighting lamps, for religious rituals and for cooking. Based on archaeological evidence, the land of Israel was an olive oil production center.
Olive oil is rarely used to fry latkes or sufganiyot, specialties that came to us from Central and Eastern Europe, where olive oil is not part of the culinary culture. Yet it seems natural to use the oil of the miracle in Hanukkah menus, along with other foods from biblical Israel. Wheat and barley were staples, and so were vegetables and a variety of fresh and dried fruits, including pomegranates, raisins and olives, which make a colorful topping for the greens of our Hanukkah salad.
Legumes were important in the daily meals of the people of the Holy Land. To make our holiday appetizer, I mix chickpeas, which are native to the Fertile Crescent, with onions sauteed in olive oil, and use the mixture as a filling for turnovers. Such turnovers and other old-fashioned treats were often fried because people didn’t have ovens at home. These days baked treats are more convenient to prepare, keep better when made in advance and are easier to reheat.
In ancient Israel, bread was the center of the meal. For Hanukkah, I bake a holiday kubanah, a slightly sweet bread based on my Yemenite mother-in-law’s overnight Shabbat bread, which I flavor with a touch of fig jam or preserves. To enrich the bread, I spread pieces of the dough with olive oil and softened butter. I roll each piece in a spiral and, as they slowly bake, the pieces come together as a cake.
Hanukkah has become a holiday for potato lovers, even though this New World tuber is a relative newcomer to the lands of the Bible. As an alternative to the common pancakes, I prepare a potato kugel topped with sour cream and cheese, the quintessential foods of the “land of milk and honey.”
Place the potatoes in a large saucepan with water to cover by about 1 inch and a pinch of salt. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the potatoes are very tender, about 35 minutes. Drain and set aside until cool enough to handle.
In a large, heavy skillet, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are tender and golden brown, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat and cool 1 minute, then stir in the garlic.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Peel the potatoes while still fairly hot. Cut them in a few chunks. Mash them thoroughly with a potato masher, not in a food processor. Add the fried onion and garlic mixture and the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, and mix well.
Add one-third cup sour cream and three-eighths teaspoon nutmeg, or as desired, and salt, pepper and cayenne to taste. Add beaten eggs and mix well.
Thoroughly grease a 2-quart casserole with olive oil. Add the potato mixture and smooth the top thoroughly. Bake the kugel uncovered until it is firm, about 40 minutes. The kugel can be made ahead of time up to this point, then refrigerated up to 2 days before serving; to finish, reheat (covered with foil) in a 300-degree oven before continuing with the recipe.
Shortly before serving, heat the oven to 450 degrees. Season the remaining 1 cup sour cream with the remaining one-eighth teaspoon nutmeg, or to taste. Spoon the sour cream mixture over the kugel in dollops, and spread it gently to the edges of the kugel; try not to spread the sour cream to the sides of the pan. Sprinkle the sour cream evenly with the grated cheese, then with paprika.
Bake the kugel until the topping sets and browns lightly, about 10 minutes.
If you would like a browner topping, broil the kugel, checking often, no longer than 1 minute, until the topping is dotted with brown. Serve hot.
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