Oil makes for true Hanukkah miracle
Published: December 5, 2007 | 6876th good news item since 2003
Today marks the beginning of the Jewish observance of Hanukkah, a joyful eight-day celebration also known as the Festival of Lights.
As with all Jewish holidays, Hanukkah carries a rich flavor of custom, tradition and symbolic foods. Foods that take center stage at Hanukkah are latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts).
The reason for their starring role stems from the holiday’s origin.
Hanukkah, celebrated in late November or December of each year, commemorates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after it had been seized by Syrian oppressors and the miracle that occurred thereafter. After reclamation, the temple was prepared for rededication, giving rise to the holiday’s name of Hanukkah, which in Hebrew means “dedication.”
When the sacred temple Menorah was relit, there was only enough oil to burn for one night. The miracle of Hanukkah is that the oil burned for eight days.
Because of the symbolic importance of oil, members of the Springfield’s Temple Israel congregation explain, foods that are cooked in oil are featured during Hanukkah.
“People traditionally try to cook something in oil because of its significance,” says Mandy Van Ostran of Nixa. “Actually, the most traditional food for Hanukkah is latkes — which are basically a potato pancake — at least for Jews who came from Europe. For Israeli Jews, it would be jelly doughnuts (sufganiyot).”
For those who want to explore the possibilities of creating latkes in their home kitchens, Marla Marantz of Springfield explains that potato pancakes take on all kinds of shapes, sizes, textures and tastes.
“Some latkes are crispy, others are more like a pancake,” Marantz says. “And the key to success is not only in the recipe you use, but in the frying. You don’t want them too crispy — like hash browns — but you don’t want them too soft, either.”
While Marantz uses grated potatoes in her latke recipe, Shelly Simon of Springfield uses a batter with a consistency similar to grainy mashed potatoes.
And while the latke tradition may have started with potatoes, many Jewish cooks like Van Ostran have expanded to other ingredients.
“In my family, we’ve started to have sweet potato or zucchini latkes, as we’re trying to become more conscious about our diet,” she says.
Potato pancake latkes are best served with sour cream and applesauce, Simon says, and can make up a meal unto themselves.
“Usually we do all latkes on the first night of Hanukkah, and maybe make them two or three other times during Hanukkah as a side dish,” Simon explains.
If latkes are only going to be a side dish and you want to create a full Hanukkah meal, the other fare is up to personal preference, local Jewish cooks say.
“Brisket of beef is a classic thing to have, and roasted chicken is very popular,” Marantz says. “And you’ll never go wrong serving a good kugel or vegetable soup along with the latkes.”
For a real traditional Hanukkah dinner, Simon suggests brisket of beef, latkes with applesauce and honey carrots.
“As far as the rest of the meal goes, it’s what the family itself considers festive,” Van Ostran explains. “For example, when the kids were little, we tried to serve something they liked. And to them, at that time, spaghetti was what they considered festive, so that’s what we served.”