FOR THOSE who think Thanksgiving and Christmas are the only holidays during which dieters throw caution to the wind, they ought to try Hanukah. It may be based on the miracle of one day's supply of holy oil lasting for eight days, but for most modern-day Jews, the only oil they see during the eight-day celebration is the oil that clings to the iatkes , potato pancakes.
How you feel about latkes may determine which of the two new books on Jewish lore you will enjoy the most. In "The Jewish Holiday Kitchen," (Shocken Books, $12.95) Joap Nathan says "it is difficult to equal the taste of brown, crisp potato latkes, Patti Shosteck, on the other hand, describes them as "greasy, oniony and salty," in her book, "A Lexicon of Jewish Cooking" (Contemporary Books, $10.95), though she admits they promise "satisfaction and heartburn with each tantalizing bite."
Latkes have comne to symbolize Hanukah for American Jews, a tradition inherited from Eastern Europe, the ancestral home Jews in this country. Jews wlsewhere eat other fried foods: In Israel and Morocco the typical Hanukah dish is a fried jelly doughnut, soofganiyot ; in Western Europe it is a fritter; in Hungary
kolatches ; in the Middle East
kadaif and flat sweet cakes, according to Shostek Nathan notes that the Sephardic Jews, who probably adapted customs of those among whom they lived, serve something like the Greek loukomades, a deep-fried puff dipped in honey or sprinkled with powdered HANUKAH, From E1 sugar. She thinks these puffs are more like the cakes the heroes of the Hanukah story, the Maccabees, ate.
Hanukah, which begins tommorrow night, commemorates the Maccabean victory over Antiochus of Syria more than 20 centuries ago in 165 B.C. During the battle for Jerusalem, the Syrians desecrated the Temple. When the Macabees were finally victorous and set about to repair the Temple damage, the discovered a container of holy oil, enough to light the menorah (an eight-branched candlelabrum) for one day, according to an ancient tradition. Miraculously the oil actually lit the menorah for eight days and eight nights giving the Macabees enough time to lay in a supply of the sacred oil.To celebrate the miracle, candles are lighted each of the eight nights of the festival of lights, beginning with one, plus the candle which acts as the lighter, until on the eighth night all eight candles plus the lighter are biazing.
But some people think there is an even better, more exciting story that is seldom connected with Hanukah. Mention Judith and Holofernes to most people, and if they know anything all they know is that she cut off his head. According to the Hebrew version of the Apocrypha, Judith, who was a daughter of the Macabees, dined with Holofernes the Syrian general. It is not clear why she was there, but there is some suggestion his intentions were not honorable. According to Shosteck's book, Judith, who was a widow, served Holofernes salty cheese and wine to quench his thirst, while she dined on mild dairy foods. When he fell asleep from all the wine, she beheaded him.
Shosteck concludes that "eating foods made with cheese is done to remind Jews of her heroism."
Nathan has slightly different conclusion: that the "latkes symbolized the cheesecakes" Judith served Holofernes and "the victory of her chastity and humility over the lust and pride of Holofernes, who would have had the Jews slaughtered had Judith not fed him so well and given him so much wine that he fell asleep."
For those who tire of the potato latke tradition, the solution seems simple -- substitute cheesecake.
Or, if you want to take in all the traditions of the eight-day holiday, try a different fried dish each night. And don't neglect a fat goose, a tradition of German Hanukah, along with the deep fried skin of the goose, called grieben, and all the rendered goose fat.
Then, each morning for six days, jog 10 miles; on the weekend, pick up the pace and do 15. You might just stay even with the fat. On the other hand, you might not. POTATO LATKES (8 to 10 servings)
Latkes have become a versatile delicacy. They can be made from buckwheat or potatoes with a touch of flour. They can be served for breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner or as cocktail-party fare. They can be eaten plain or fancy, with sugar, applesauce, sour cream or even with chicken soup. 10 medium potatoes 2 medium onions 2 large or 3 medium eggs 1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, breadcrumbs or matzo meal Salt and white pepper to taste Vegetable oil
Peel the potatoes if the skin is coarse; otherwise, just clean them well. Keep them in cold water until ready to prepare the latkes.
Starting with the onions, alternately grate some of the onions on the large holes of the grater and some of the potatoes on the smallest holes. This will keep the potato mixture from blackening. Press out as much liquid as possible and reserve the starchy sediment at the bottom of the bowl. Return the sediment to the mixture. Blend potatoes with the eggs, flour, salt, and white pepper.
Heat 1 inch of oil in a frying pan. Drop about 1 tablespoon of mixture for each latke into the skillet and fry, turning once. When golden and crisp on each side, drain on paper towels. Serve with yogurt, sour cream, sugar or applesauce.
Note: People are always asking me about freezing potato latkes. you can! after making them, place them on a cookie sheet, freeze and remove to a plastic bag. When ready to serve, place in a 450-degree oven for several minutes. RUMANIAN ZUCCHINI POTATO LATKES (6 to 8 servings) 2 pounds zucchini 2 large potatoes 1 medium onion 3 eggs 1 teaspoon vegetable oil 3/4 cup matzo meal Salt and pepper to taste Vegetable oil for frying
Peel the zucchini and grate down to the seeds (discard the seeds). Squeeze out the liquid. Peel the potatoes and grate into the zucchini. Once more, remove the liquid. This is important! Grate the onion and add to the zucchini mixture. Add the eggs, oil and matzo meal, starting with 1/2 cup of matzo meal and continuing to add more if necessary, until there is body to the mixture. Season with salt and pepper to taste and blend well.
In a large, heavy frying pan, heat some vegetable oil until almost smoking. Using a large tablespoon, spoon a round portion of zucchini mixture into the pan and brown on both sides. Serve hot with sour cream or applesauce.
The steel blade of a food processor or the grating blade are less painful ways of grating the potatoes and the onions. The blade makes a smooth consistency and the grater a crunchy one. RUMANIAN FRIED NOODLE PUDDING (4 to 6 servings)
Potato latkes may not be essential to Hanukah, but cooking with oil is. If you want a change from potato pancakes, try this Rumanian fried noodle pudding, which goes well with sauerbraten or roast goose. 1/2 pound fine egg noodles 2 tablespoons margarine 1 large onion, diced 6 tablespoons vegetable oil 2 eggs, beaten Salt and pepper to taste
Cook the noodles according to the directions on the package and drain. Transfer to a large bowl and add margarine, blending well. Set aside.
Saute the onion in 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, in a large, heavy frying pan. Add the noodle mixture and let brown on the bottom and sides, taking care not to burn.
When browned on one side, place a large plate over the pan. Turn over onto the plate and then slide back into the pan to brown the other side. RUGELACH (Cream Cheese Cookies) (Makes 32)
In the Middle Ages it was traditional to eat cheesecakes at Hanukah. Today many people serve sour-cream pancakes at Hanukah in memory of Judith. Others serve rugelach, a half-moon cream cheese cookie, which may be a far cry from the original cheesecake, but is nevertheless a melt-in-the-mouth delicacy, perfect for the fanciest party. Dough: 1/2 pound unsalted butter, softened 8 ounces cream cheese, softened 2 cups all-purpose flour Raisin Nut Filling: 1/2 cup sugar 1/2 cup seedless raisins 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1 cup finely chopped nuts 1/4 cup sugar (for topping) Strawberry Jam Filling 1/2 cup ground almonds 1/2 cup strawberry jam 1/4 cup sugar (for topping)
In a mixing bowl or food precessor, cream the butter and cream cheese together. Beat in the flour, little by little. Knead the dough lightly until all the flour is incorporated. Refrigerate al least 1 hour. Divide the dough into 2 portions.
Prepare one of the fillings by combining the ingredients (except the 1/4 cup sugar for the topping), and set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roll out one of the portions of dough. In a circle about 1/16-inch thick. With a knife or pastry wheel, cut the pastry into 1-inch pie-shaped wedges. If the dough is sticky, dust it with a little flour. Sprinkle or spread the filling of your choice on the little wedge. Beginning at the wide edge, roll the dough up toward the point. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet and carefully sprinkle with a tiny bit of the reserved sugar. Repeat with the rest of the dough and filling. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, or until golden.
Reciped from "The Jewish Holiday Kitchen" by Joan Nathan