When the Hero Is Judith, and the Latkes Are Cheese

By Matthew Goodman

Published December 03, 2004, issue of December 03, 2004.
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Whatever your personal Hanukkah memories might be, their background noise is most likely potato latkes sizzling in oil. In America, potato latkes have become virtually synonymous with Hanukkah, as a culinary remembrance of the miraculous cruse of oil that burned for eight days and nights in the Maccabees’ temple when it was only supposed to last but a single night. Still, for all its charms, the potato latke is something of a parvenu when it comes to Hanukkah celebrations — the guest who comes late to the party and then refuses to allow anyone else on the dance floor. Potato latkes didn’t even exist until the middle of the 19th century at the earliest, for it was only then that potatoes were first widely planted in Russia. (They were long believed to be poisonous, carriers of typhoid and leprosy.) Before then latkes had been made from buckwheat flour and, going back to their earliest incarnation, from cheese — and indeed, cheese has its own, rather lesser-known, claim to fame on the Hanukkah table.

For cheese, the hero of this particular Hanukkah story is not Judah but Judith. The Book of Judith, like The Book of the Maccabees, is to be found in the Apocrypha. According to the story recounted there, during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar, Assyrian armies were laying siege to the small but militarily significant town of Bethulia, near Jerusalem. One of its residents, the beautiful widow Judith, was determined to save her townspeople. She managed to gain entrance to the Assyrian camp, whereupon the enemy General Holofernes espied her. Intending to seduce the beautiful widow, Holofernes invited her into his tent for a banquet. There Judith fed the general salty cheeses so that she might then ply him with goblets of wine to slake his thirst. Eventually Holofernes fell drunkenly asleep, at which point Judith seized her opportunity and lopped off his head with his own sword; the hea, she carried back to her comrades in a sack. When the Assyrian armies discovered their leader dead, his head carried aloft by Jewish fighters, they fled in panic and the town was saved.

Since that time, Judith has been a name of honor for Jewish girls — think of 20th-century Jewish artists such as Judy Holliday (née Judith Tuvim), Judy Chicago (née Cohen) and Judy Blume (née Sussman) — and dishes made with cheese have been a tradition at Hanukkah celebrations, to remind us of Judith’s heroism.

Cheese itself is one of the oldest foods, dating back to prehistoric times, when it was likely that some anonymous herdsman first noticed that milk curdled when stored in a pouch made from an animal’s stomach. (The herdsmen would not have known this, but animal stomachs contain rennet, a digestive enzyme that has a curdling effect on milk.) Cave paintings seem to indicate that cheese was being made in the Sahara as far back as 5000 BCE, but cheese was certainly being made by biblical times. Indeed, the Bible mentions cheese, though only on a handful of occasions, such as in 1 Samuel, when the future King David’s father, Jesse, sends his sons 10 cheeses to sustain them in their fight against the Philistine Goliath. It’s likely this cheese was made from goat’s or sheep’s milk and preserved either by salting or by immersion in olive oil, as is still done in the Middle East today.

Cheese assumed a greater role in the Jewish diet during the Hellenistic age; during this time community leaders enacted 18 laws forbidding Jews to buy various foodstuffs made by their Greek neighbors, among them bread, wine, vinegar and cheese. This may have arisen in part as a result of nationalist fervor after the destruction of the Second Temple, but, as far as cheese went, surely it also was a response to concerns having to do with milk being curdled with rennet from an animal that had not been slaughtered according to kosher guidelines, or — even worse — from an animal that had been sacrificed to pagan idols.

By this time, cheese was being produced in numerous varieties, including hard and soft, and fresh and salted (though not, the Talmud indicates, on the Sabbath, as both milking and cheese making were said to constitute prohibited forms of work). The first Hanukkah latkes, circa this period, were little cakes made from curd cheese and fried in butter or in olive oil. In the early Middle Ages, Jews began to migrate eastward into Eastern Europe, where butter and oil grew increasingly precious and expensive, and poultry fat became the chief frying agent, which made the use of cheese off-limits. Only then did we begin to see latkes being made without dairy ingredients, first with buckwheat flour and then with grated potatoes.

Since then, as noted earlier, when it comes to Hanukkah, potato latkes have more or less stolen the show; but the tradition of eating cheese at Hanukkah still remains, and it is one well worth upholding. Have some latkes this Hanukkah season, and recall that heroic woman who long ago showed us that the best-laid traps, for mice and men, are the ones baited with cheese.

* * *

Among Turkish Jews, a popular dish called skulaca consists of a pancake made from dry vermicelli noodles that are fried and then cooked in salted water. Another popular dish is macaroni and cheese. The two are interestingly combined in this preparation, the recipe for which comes from Eugenia Moreno Mitrani of Syosset, N.Y., whose grandparents emigrated from Istanbul to Cuba around the year 1920. Eugenia’s recipe calls for 1/2 cup of cheese, but I prefer the cake a bit cheesier; you can use whatever amount you like. It can be served as an appetizer, a side dish or even as a main course. Whichever way you serve it, the dish seems to me especially appropriate for Hanukkah, as it involves cheese as well as oil for frying.

Macaron con Queso (Fried Noodle Cake With Cheese)

12 ounces dried vermicelli or spaghetti

1/2 cup to 1 cup firmly packed grated kashkaval or other mild white cheese (such as Gouda), to taste

3 eggs, lightly beaten

1/4 cup olive oil

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 tablespoons oil for frying

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the noodles, and cook until al dente. Drain well, and let cool.

2. Place the noodles in a large bowl. Add the cheese, eggs, oil and a generous amount of salt and pepper, and stir until well combined.

3. Heat the oil at medium in a large nonstick skillet. Place the noodle mixture in the skillet, pressing it together to form a cake. Cook until the bottom is golden and crispy, about seven minutes. Place a large plate over the pan, and invert the cake onto it. Slide the cake back into the pan, and continue cooking until the other side is golden and crispy.

4. Slide the cake out of the pan onto a large serving platter. To serve, cut into wedges. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Serves eight.

* * *

Of the many eggplant dishes in Turkish Jewish cookery, this one — a delightfully light, creamy casserole, almost like a baked pudding — might be the most beloved. (I’ve adapted this recipe from one in “Sefarad Yemekleri,” a cookbook published by the Jewish community of Istanbul.) It includes feta, a salty cheese of the sort that Judith apparently favored.

Almodrote de Berengena (Eggplant Gratin)

3 medium eggplants, about 1 1/4 pounds each

4 slices white bread, crusts removed, briefly soaked in cold water and squeezed dry, then crumbled

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1/4 cup vegetable or olive oil

3/4 cup well-crumbled feta cheese

1 cup firmly packed grated kashkaval, Gouda or other mild cheese

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Preheat the broiler. Place the eggplants on a baking sheet, and prick them several times with a fork. Broil the eggplants until soft, about 25 minutes, turning them once. Remove them, placing them in a colander, and let cool.

2. When the eggplants are cool, press down on them with your hand to remove as much juice as possible. Chop off the stems and strip away the skin from the pulp, discarding the stems, skin and seeds. Place the eggplant pulp in a large bowl, and mash it well with a fork.

3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 10-inch round baking dish. Add the bread, eggs, three tablespoons of the oil, the feta cheese, three quarter of a cup of the mild cheese, and the salt and pepper to the large bowl with the eggplant, and stir to combine.

4. Spoon the mixture into the prepared baking dish, smoothing out the top. Sprinkle the remaining quarter cup of mild cheese over the top, and then drizzle with the remaining tablespoon of oil. Bake until set and golden brown on top, 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool slightly, then serve warm.

Serves six.

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