A beautiful spy enters an enemy camp to seduce its evil general. After tempting him with salty cakes of cheese and a steady stream of wine to quench his thirst, she watches him fall into a drunken stupor. She slays him and his frightened troops retreat. Our heroine's people are saved.
This could be a movie pitch, but it is actually the lesser-known biblical story associated with the eight days of Hanukah, which began at sundown Tuesday.
The Jewish holiday commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Israel after it was destroyed in 165 B.C. Many stories are associated with this holiday, but the most common one relates to the single vial of oil for the sacred candelabra that miraculously burned for eight days instead of one. That tale has been emphasized for centuries, and oil figures prominently in Hanukah cooking to this day -- most commonly in the fried potato pancakes called latkes that are a favorite during the holiday.
But many Jews also tell the story of Judith, a beautiful and pious widow who takes matters into her own hands when her town is under siege by the Assyrians, led by the general Holofernes. As told in the Apocrypha, Judith rebukes her fellow Israelites for losing faith as their town is surrounded by soldiers. She then goes to the enemy camp, pretending to be an informer. She charms Holofernes and dispatches him with his own sword after he falls asleep. The Israelites are inspired by Judith's courage and defeat the Assyrians.
Although the events are true, they occurred during Babylonian times, long after the Temple's destruction. Medieval rabbis, however, incorporated this story of an individual's triumph over evil into Hanukah celebrations because it gave hope to persecuted Jews throughout Europe. Since then, cheese dishes have become part of the holiday.
Personally, if given the choice between scraping my knuckles grating potatoes for latkes and mixing a light ricotta batter for cheese pancakes, I opt to protect my hands and celebrate Hanukah with cheese dishes. And so I make rugelach, an herbed cream cheese tart with jalapeno jelly on top and rosemary walnut Parmesan biscotti.
Besides, latkes are a relatively new tradition for Hanukah. Potatoes weren't readily available in Europe until the late 18th century, according to culinary historians. Pancakes, on the other hand, are one of the oldest forms of bread known to mankind. Whether incorporating cheese into a pancake batter in dishes such as Israeli levivot or Russian syrniki, or rolling pancakes around a cheese filling to make Lebanese ataif or Sephardic boyos, cheesy pancakes are basic to Jewish cuisine.
And rugelach? The little rolled, filled pastries (pronounced RUHG-uh-luhkh) made with a cream-cheese dough are a year-round treat, perhaps as ubiquitous as bagels. Supermarket bakeries and Starbucks sell them. Most rugelach recipes are similar; they use cream cheese, butter and flour to make a rich dough, which is then spread with sweet fillings such as a cinnamon-sugar-walnut-raisin mixture, fruit preserves with coconut, or chocolate. The laden dough is rolled into individual pastries. (Hungarians make schnecken, similar to rugelach, that call for sour cream instead.)
In the Jewish cooking classes I teach in Dallas, my students do not make rugelach in the traditional crescent shape, which can be daunting for young and old alike. Instead, they roll the dough into logs that are cut before baking to create little spirals. Young children who want to help can sprinkle the filling over the dough before an adult rolls it up.
I have also updated the classic cheese pancake for the modern cook. Since it is prepared using one bowl and doesn't require an electric mixer, it is also perfect to make with children. The pancakes are best eaten as soon as they've cooled enough to pop them in your mouth.
Lemon Ricotta Pancakes
Makes about 20 silver dollar-size pancakes
These pancakes are soft and delicate, although the addition of the whole-wheat flour gives them a little heft, texture and a subtle nutty flavor. They're best made with whole-milk ricotta cheese because it produces the best flavor and texture. If you use part-skim milk ricotta, more flour might be necessary because there is more water and less fat to act as binders. The recipe may easily be doubled.
Serve the pancakes with jam, fresh fruit or fruit syrups. Try topping each one with a dollop of sour cream (or creme fraiche) and caviar.