by Prof. Steve Holzinger
The dreidel 1, a four sided top, used by children to play with at Chanukah, has four Hebrew letters on its sides, Shin, Hey, Gimel, Nun, which are the first letters of the Hebrew words of "A Great Miracle Happened There." Chanukah, a word which means dedication, is called the Festival of Lights and celebrates the victory of Judah Maccabe (the Hammer) over the Greek-Syrian Antiochus. The miracle was that after cleansing the temple of idols, there was only one cruse of consecrated olive oil for the Eternal Light in the temple. This one day's supply miraculously burned for the eight days and nights needed to get more consecrated oil. Jews all over the world will light one candle on the first day of Chanukah, from the center candle, and one more each evening, until on the eighth night all are burning on the eight branched Menorah. Why it was so important to cleanse the temple and sanctify it right at that moment, instead of waiting for new oil to be consecrated was so that they could celebrate the Succoth Harvest festival which ensured good crops for the coming year.
This is a family holiday, celebrated at home and much loved by children for its songs and games, gifts of Chanukah Gelt (foil covered chocolate coins or even real money, ) and special foods. Chanukah Gelt is the name of a short story by Sholom Alechem, a writer of Yiddish Folk tales. As the story opens, he asks:
"Can you guess children, which is the best of all holidays? Why Hanukkah, of course. You don't go to school for eight days in a row, you eat latkes every day..."2
Latkes is the Yiddish word for pancakes. The tradition of eating potato pancakes which are shallow -fried in oil is from the Polish tradition, I think. My grandmother's family are from a little town in Poland that is no longer in Poland. In fact, the town of Zabeltov no longer exists, destroyed in the war.
My grandmother's latkes were a miracle of their own crunchiness and flavor. She fried them in Planters Peanut oil, and the memory of the flavor still lingers. That fragment is all I have of Zabeltov. Does anyone remember the Planters Peanut Jar, shaped like Mr. Peanut?
Normally for Chanukah, foods are fried in oil, and served with dairy foods. My grandmother served them with thick dairy sourcream, from the original Daitches Dairy on Bathgate Avenue in the Bronx. I can remember going with her to that store, where they had huge (30 lb) blocks of sweet butter that they cut chunks off with a big square knife, loaves of farmer cheese, and deep vats of pot cheese curds. I remember the warm secure feel of my Grandmother's tight grip on my hand on this busy exotic crowded city street, teeming with stores, pushcarts and flavors and the smell of the appetizing store with pickle barrels. Here was the mythic Zabeltov of my imagining, a Yiddishe homeland, but in America. Holding one of those pickles in my other hand, biting into that crunchy garlicky sour pickle! It all comes back to me as clear as day. That is what holidays are about; remembrance. I remember my Grandmother.
Latkes can also be served with meat meals, and then you can add some chicken or goose fat to them for flavor. At Jager Haus, we had them on as the Monday Special, because that was the chef Noel's day off. It was a real struggle for the relief cook to come in and make the brisket and the potato pancakes, along with the regular menu. I remember one Monday, Noel forgot to put them on the menu as usual, and the relief cook made them any way, because it was Monday, and I had ordered the brisket as usual. Around 12:30, George, the Maitre d' came in the kitchen to ask if a regular customer could have brisket and potato pancakes, as it wasn't on the menu.
What a college crash course I got in swearing in German that day. We didn't sell much....after all it wasn't on the menu, just the regulars knew they could have it, menu or no, so the help got a very good lunch that day. We had plenty of goose fat, as we imported a thousand Polish Geese. The Chef put up brandy snifters of tasty rendered (with apples and onions) goose grease, tied with a ribbon, for Harry, the manager to give to regular customers. Very tasty to put a few spoonfuls in the latkes. In the old country, they fried the latkes in goose schmaltz. Tastes great on rye bread instead of butter, too.
On December 5th, the Beard House in New York City will conduct its Second Annual Latke Lovers Cook Off. I am entering my Chanukah Gelt Latkes. Last year I published the recipe for these in the electronic Gourmet Guide, along with my regular recipe for latkes. Chanukah Gelt latkes are made the same as the regular ones, but use half sweet potatoes and a whiff of cinnamon. (I'm thinking of trying butternut squash instead of sweet potato.) I make them the size of a half dollar and I am going to wrap one or two in a golden purse (a buttered crepe—"en aumoniere" an idea I swiped from Raymond Oliver) and sit it on a pool of fresh applesauce, with a dollop of my buddy Jonathan's Clabber Cream. Jonathan is dedicated to setting the dairy industry back 100 years. Good idea! You can die for his extra fat butter! Quel Tam! (What a taste!)
To celebrate Chanukah, potato latkes are all wrong, from a historical point of view! You should eat cheese latkes. There are a number of versions of this story but in the main, a virtuous Jewish Widow, Judith pretended to seduce the Assyrian General, by feeding him "cheesecakes" which may have been salty, as he drank lots of wine and fell asleep. Then she cut off his head, thus saving her people from the enemy. The accuracy of the history on this is real shaky, but never mind, that's the custom.
So I trotted out an old Polish recipe for cheese latkes and tested it for lunch. I present it in a slightly salty version, fried in oil, to keep the tradition intact, and a sweet version, in butter, that is more tasty. You serve them with a little dish of salt, sweet wine or grape juice for the children, and tell the story of how Judith, one of the great Jewish heroines, who like Esther saved her people by a brave act. The kids can taste the salt to see how it makes them thirsty, and drink some grape juice.
On the Web, you can even see a painting of Judith, Judith Slaying Holofernes, c1612-13 by Artemisia Gentileschi who was herself, a rape victim, and who cleared her name by a public trial. The Judith was painted shortly after the trial, and Gentileschi specialized thereafter in painting biblical scenes depicting women killing men in gory detail 3!
To get back to potato pancakes, I used to deliver fresh herbs in pots and game to the Four Seasons Restaurant. One day I brought the fresh herbs into the kitchen, and Chef Stockli gave me a Roesti potato pancake instead of the usual croissant. (I was 6' 1" and 150 lbs soaking wet in those days, and looked like I needed feeding.) These are thin pancakes made of shredded cooked potatoes cooked in butter, with a little salt. That's it: the whole recipe—cooked potato, butter and a pinch of salt. They are the sin qua non, the acme, the very peak of crisp home fries, as the idea is to have the crust on either side separated by only the thinnest line of potato!
He gave me one, I consumed it and said, "Chef, this is wonderful!" "They are almost as good as my mothers," he replied, dolefully. Imagine having a mother who could cook that well. Chef Albert Stockli is one of the chefs responsible for the renaissance of great cuisine in America.
There are only two possibilities for this recipe to vary (so you could use sea salt, OK!), the potatoes and the butter. So I worked up a recipe for you to try using Yukon Gold potatoes and my buddy Jonathan's butter. They have it at Balducci's in NYC.
Vegetable cutlets based on Pomme Duchesse are in here as they are a sort of potato pancake. with the cutlets, baked apples were often served as a treat, which were my Dad's specialty. If you ever saw the baked apples in New York City's Horn and Hardart Cafeterias, that is what these are like , and the recipe is here for you.
I am going to finish up with another dairy item, one that would have fixed Holosfernes 4 chariot but good! It is my Holiday eGGnog. This is the only time all year I allow myself to misuse the electronic Gourmet Guide (electronic Gourmet Guide) name, but in vanilla and chocolate flavors, I hope you will lift a glass and wish me, as I wish you, a healthy and Happy New Year.
© 1997, Steve K. Holzinger. All rights reserved.
This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.
Copyright © 2007, Forkmedia LLC. All rights reserved.
Modified August 2007
Copyright © 1994-2018,