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The Essense of Chanukah Cookery Lies in the Oil, Not the Latke

It is difficult to imagine a more festive holiday, or one to be more happily observed, than that which prescribes the eating of fried foods. Such good fortune is ours each year on Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, when the oil that stands at the center of the celebration migrates from the miraculous Maccabean cruse into the family frying pan and remains there for eight days.

Virtually any fried food is appropriate for Chanukah (within the bounds of the kosher laws, that is: No cheeseburgers before the menorah), but in the United States a single one has become synonymous with the holiday; that, of course, is the potato latke. (I have written extensively of latkes elsewhere; see, for instance, “The Food Maven” column of November 23, 2001 at www.forward.com.)

“Latke” is a Yiddish word derived from the Russian oladka, the diminutive of oladya, defined as “a flat cake of unleavened wheat dough.” This would seem an odd derivation for a dish that contains only a few tablespoons of wheat flour, certainly not enough to form a dough — that is, until we recall that the potato is a relatively recent invitee to the Chanukah table. In Eastern Europe latkes were long made from buckwheat flour, in the fashion of the Russian buckwheat cakes called blini.

The potato, a New World commodity, was widely believed to be a carrier of such dreaded diseases as typhoid and leprosy. Not until the late 1840s, in the wake of disastrous buckwheat and barley harvests, was it widely planted in Eastern Europe, as a last resort to stave off famine. Only then, in the middle of the 19th century, do we see the emergence of latkes made from potatoes. Sometimes these were made with potato flour, after the earlier buckwheat version, but more often they were prepared in a new way, by grating potatoes and forming them into little flat cakes, to be fried in oil or, more luxuriously, melted chicken or goose fat (schmaltz of blessed memory).

For pure culinary happiness, there may be no beating a crisp, hot potato latke, topped with a healthy dollop of sour cream and applesauce. Done right, it offers a virtually perfect mouth sensation: hot and cold, salty and sweet and creamy all at once.

Still, for all of the latke’s charms, it is worth remembering that the essence of Chanukah cookery lies not in the latke but in the oil — and that hot oil can be just as wondrous when put to the preparation of sweet dishes.

Probably the most well known of these is sufganiyot, the jelly-filled doughnuts that have become de rigueur for Chanukah celebrations in Israel and, increasingly, in the United States as well. The tradition originated in neither of those countries, though, but rather in Germany, with the apricot-filled doughnuts called Berliner Pfannkuchen. (One recalls that John F. Kennedy’s famous declaration “Ich bin ein Berliner” actually translates to “I am a jelly doughnut.”) Berliner Pfannkuchen, a New Year’s Eve specialty, were also eaten by Jews on Chanukah; in the 1930s the practice was carried to Palestine by German immigrants, where, as with so many other items, a new Hebrew name was invented — sufganiyot, derived from a Greek word meaning “puffed” or “spongy.”

A rather different sort of doughnut, called sfenj, is a traditional Chanukah favorite among the Jews of Morocco. Sfenj are airily light yeast doughnuts in the classic ring shape (sometimes chopped nuts are added to the batter, giving the doughnuts a nice bit of texture), which after frying are glazed with a sugar syrup flavored with cinnamon and orange. The Chanukah doughnuts from nearby Tunisia are very similar, though they are made from a dough enriched with eggs and are leavened with baking powder rather than yeast; these doughnuts are known by the cheerful name yoyos.

Fried doughnuts are really just more elaborate versions of fritters, which are themselves a Chanukah tradition throughout the Sephardic world, from the Balkans to North Africa and the Middle East. Among those Jews who are descended from the Spanish exiles of medieval times, the fritters are called bimuelos, a Ladinized version of the Spanish word for fritter, bunuelo. (In much of the Middle East, the fritters are called zelabia, from the Arabic word meaning “fried.”) Like sfenj and yoyos, bimuelos are yeast raised and most often finished with the citrus-scented sugar syrup that adorns so many Sephardic cakes and pastries, though warm honey can also be used. Honey is the preferred topping among the Jews of Greece, where the fritters are known as loukomades, and among those of Italy as well, where the fritters — studded with raisins and flavored with anise seeds — are called frittelle di Chanuka.

Be they bimuelos, zelabia, loukomades or frittelles, the fritters emerge from their immersion a beautiful golden brown, slightly crunchy on the outside, soft and airy on the inside; glazed with syrup or honey, they shimmer in the flickering light of the candles. Made properly, they retain only the slightest trace of oil — just enough to serve as a reminder of the season, so that you can look back with satisfaction at the pot on the stove and tell yourself, “A great miracle happened there.”

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This recipe comes from “Come, Es Bueno!” — the Sephardic cookbook published by Congregation Etz Ahaim in New Brunswick, N.J. The loukomades come out yeastily light, sweet and crisp, and the warm honey imparts a golden shine. They’re a guaranteed crowd pleaser.

Loukomades (Greek Yeast Fritters with Honey)

for dough:

1 package (about 2 1/2 tsp.) active dry yeast

1 1/2 cups warm water

1/2 tsp. sugar

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp. salt

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 tbsp. vegetable oil

Vegetable oil for deep-frying

for topping:

2 cups (about 24 ounces) honey

1/4 cup water

Ground cinnamon for sprinkling

1. Place the yeast in 1/4 cup of the warm water. Add the sugar and let stand until the mixture begins to bubble, about 5 minutes.
2. Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Make a well in the center. Pour the egg, oil, the remaining water and the yeast mixture into the well and stir until the mixture is smooth. Cover with a towel and let rise until doubled in volume, about 1 1/2 hours.
3. In a Dutch oven or other large, heavy pot, heat at least 2 inches of oil to 375 degrees. Dip a tablespoon into the oil, and use the oiled tablespoon to drop tablespoons of dough into the oil. Fry the puffs until they are golden brown on all sides, about 3 minutes total. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
4. Combine the honey and water in a medium saucepan and heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until boiling. Dip the loukomades in the warm honey and transfer to a large serving platter. Sprinkle with the cinnamon. Serve warm.

Makes about 25.

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This sophisticated version of the traditional Ashkenazic Chanukah fritter is from the cookbook “Tabernacle Tastings,” published by the Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation in the Washington Heights section of New York City.

Apfel Fritlach (Apple Fritters)

for apples:

4 medium apples (such as Fuji or gala)

1/4 cup white wine

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon

for batter:

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1/4 tsp. salt

1/2 cup milk

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter for frying, plus more as needed

Confectioner’s sugar for dusting

1. Peel and core the apples, and slice them into thick rings (about 1/2-inch thick). Place them in a medium bowl. In a small bowl, mix together the wine, sugar and cinnamon, and pour the mixture over the apples. Let stand at room temperature, turning the apples occasionally, for 1 hour.
2. Sift the flour and salt into a medium bowl. Add the milk and eggs and stir until the mixture is smooth. Let the batter stand at room temperature for 1 hour.
3. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Heat the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Dip the apple rings into the batter, shaking off any excess. In batches, fry the apple rings until golden brown on both sides, turning as necessary, about 10 minutes total. (Add a bit more butter to the pan if necessary.)
4. Drain on paper towels and place on a baking sheet in the oven until all of the apple rings have been fried. Just before serving, dust with confectioner’s sugar. Serve warm.

Makes about 16.

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The secret to crispy, non-greasy latkes is proper oil temperature, s make sure that your oil is very hot (though not smoking) before

adding the latkes; and don’t crowd the pan, as that will cause the oil temperature to fall.

Potato Latkes

2 pounds russet potatoes

1 onion

2 eggs, lightly beaten

2 tbsp. unbleached all-purpose flour

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Vegetable oil for frying

1. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Peel and grate the potatoes. (This can be done in a food processor, but the texture is better if done by hand.) Place the grated potatoes in a colander with a plate beneath it. Sprinkle salt on the potatoes, cover them with a layer of paper towels, and then place a heavy object (such as a heavy bowl or can) on top. Allow the potatoes to drain for 10 minutes.
2. While the potatoes are draining, peel the onion and grate it by hand. Set aside.
3. In a large bowl, combine the potatoes, onion, eggs and flour, and season generously with salt and pepper. Mix well.
4. In a large, heavy skillet, add oil to a depth of about 1/4 inch and heat over medium-high heat until very hot but not smoking. Drop 1/4 cup of the potato mixture into the hot oil, flattening with a spatula. Fry the latkes until deep brown and crisp on both sides.
5. Drain the latkes on paper towels (pat them with the towels on both sides), and keep them warm in a single layer on a baking sheet in the oven until all of them have been made. Serve hot, with applesauce and sour cream.

Makes about 14.

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