THINK HANUKAH, the midwinter Feast of Lights, and wonderful visions of latkes come to mind. Dipped in cold sour cream or applesauce, eaten as hot as the mouth can stand, these fried round pancakes are the seasonal staple of joy.
But where is it written that latkes mean potatoes? All over the country, Jewish cooks are getting ready to break with tradition -- or at least bend it a bit -- by lightening up the holiday fare. Instead of just potatoes, other ingredients -- from zucchini and apples to bran and cheese -- are finding their way into the pancakes. Latkes nouvelles, healthy and good.
And why must holiday desserts stop at sufganiyot, Israel's contribution to the jelly doughnut, when there can be Israeli dessert latkes and fichuelas de Hanukah? Lighter and less filling, but still sweet and gooey when topped with a sugar glaze or honey.
This year Leah Blitz, of Potomac, is making cheese latkes. They are really more traditional than the potato versions, she points out, relating the story of their origin. During the Middle Ages, favorite Hanukah foods were dairy dishes, a custom said to have stemmed from the story of Judith, the Jewish heroine who served the wicked General Holoferenes cheese in order to make him thirsty. Legend says that when he had quenched his thirst with enough wine to put him into a stupor, Judith beheaded this enemy of the Jewish people. A gory tale with a fruitful outcome -- light and luscious cheese latkes.
Like all fine cooks, Blitz adapts recipes with a sixth sense that knows just what additions will make a good recipe even better. To the Judith Cheese Latkes she adds grated cheddar in addition to the cottage cheese, substitutes flour for the heavier matzo meal and leavens it with baking powder. Her annual Hanukah party for friends and relatives, ranging in age from 5 to 75, takes place in her kitchen-family room amid three ovens, a leather couch, copper pots and serving dishes stacked on free-standing steel racks. Blitz, who usually concentrates on Chinese cooking, admits that she doesn't cook traditional Jewish holiday fare very often. ("I don't try to fight my mother on that," she says with a laugh.) But Hanukah is different.
While onlookers and kibitzers hang over the stove beneath the wooden range hood, she flips latkes from the frying pan onto waiting plates. As in years past, the nearby sideboard will hold a sweet, cold, homemade applesauce for topping hot latkes.
A latke is a personal thing. "People should sweeten it to their own taste," she cautions.
New toppings for this year's buffet include yogurt in place of sour cream and a light blueberry sauce that can be made with a sugar substitute. To quench thirsts, guests can help themselves to cider or sangria while they watch latkes fry quickly in hot oil.
Cooking with oil recalls the point of Hanukah. This joyous holiday celebrates the rededication of the destroyed Temple in 165 B.C. after a successful revolt against Syria led by Judas Maccabaeus. According to legend, when the Temple was rededicated, a small cruet of unprofaned oil was found. Containing only enough oil to burn for one day, it miraculously burned for eight. In commemoration, Jews across the world light candles for eight nights during the holiday and eat foods fried in oil.
In Turkey, for example, Jewish women make a sweet version of borek, a fried cheese-filled turnover. Sephardic Jews in Morocco fry a sweet pastry reminiscent of French beignets. And in Israel, the deep-fried sufganiyot and dessert latkes are traditions.
For 32 years, Selma Schwadron has been making dessert latkes from the recipe her Israeli mother-in-law gave her. Two years ago she made them for 125 guests at a Hanukah party that also celebrated her son's engagement. Made with a yeast dough, these latkes are light and puffy, served dusted with confectioners' sugar.
"The people just wait in the kitchen for them. They usually stand in the kitchen and they eat them as I take them out. They can't eat them fast enough," Schwadron says.
For the Hanukah parties at her Rockville home, Schwadron makes the dough in the morning. But the latkes are only fried when the party starts. For one party, Schwadron recalls, she wound up making six double batches of dough. All the pastries were eaten, she adds.
Another holiday sweet that Blitz will prepare is fichuelas de Hanukah, rosettes of fried pastry made from a recipe she found in "The Hanukkah Book" by Mae Shafter Rockland. Although the dough is initially difficult to work, Blitz says ("heavy kneading is important"), she finds the fichuelas themselves easy to make, spiraling into rose shapes as they deep-fry in hot oil. She serves them sprinkled with confectioners' sugar instead of the traditional sugar syrup.
With its reliance on last-minute preparation, Hanukah food is well-suited to an informal winter open house.
"Latke parties are a lot of fun," says Rosalyn Chidekel, a kosher caterer and home economist who has demonstrated Hanukah baking for the Smithsonian.
Chidekel suggests using a sandwich grill or waffle iron on the buffet to make latkes. For potato latkes, she does her grating by hand, with an old-fashioned four-sided grater.
"To my mind it makes it taste more like the potato -- fresher, not processed. It gives it the best flavor," she maintains. "Of course a processor or blender is much easier, and the mixture doesn't tend to brown as rapidly. It's not exposed to as much air. But that brownness disappears in frying."
If you are using a blender or processor, Chidekel adds, put the potatoes in first, followed by the eggs and onions and then the dry ingredients. And if you are making latkes with zucchini, be sure to remove as much moisture as possible before adding to the rest of the ingredients. This is done by grating the zucchini, sprinkling with salt and allowing zucchini to rest in a colander for approximately 20 minutes. The shredded zucchini is then rinsed and pressed to remove any liquid.
However you choose to make latkes this year, make enough. Lighter latkes are bound to mean fewer leftovers.
CALIFORNIA-STYLE LATKES OR LATKES NOUVELLES (4 to 8 servings) 2 large zucchini, unpeeled Salt 4 medium potatoes, peeled 1/2 apple 1 onion 1 clove garlic, minced 1/2 cup fine dry bread crumbs 1/2 cup bran flakes 2 to 3 eggs, beaten Pinch cayenne pepper Freshly grated pepper Sesame oil (not Oriental type) or vegetable oil for frying
Grate zucchini, sprinkle with salt and leave in a colander to drain about 20 minutes. Rinse under cold water and press to remove as much moisture as possible. Coarsely shred potatoes, apple and onion and combine with drained zucchini. Toss together with garlic, bread crumbs and bran flakes. Stir in enough eggs to completely moisten and hold vegetable mixture together. Season with peppers. Shape by hand into desired size. Brown in oil in large, heavy skillet (preferably with a non-stick coating). Flatten as latkes fry. Lift out with slotted spatula. Serve with yogurt or hot or cold applesauce.
LEAH BLITZ'S JUDITH CHEESE LATKES (4 servings) 3 large eggs 1 cup milk 1 cup unbleached, unsifted flour 1 cup cottage cheese, strained in a sieve to remove liquid 1 cup grated cheddar cheese 1 teaspoon baking powder 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 4 tablespoons sugar 1/4 cup vegetable oil for frying
Beat eggs with fork in large bowl and then add remaining ingredients except oil. Stir until well-blended. Mixture should have the consistency of heavy cream. In a 10- or 12-inch skillet add oil to cover surface. Heat until a drop of water sizzles on surface. For dinner-size latkes, add by two-tablespoon measure to pan. Fry approximately 2 minutes on each side or until well browned. Lift out with slotted spatula. For a lighter, less fattening latke, substitute pot cheese for the cottage cheese and skim milk for the whole milk.
POTATO LATKES (Makes 24 medium-size latkes) 3 pounds baking potatoes, peeled 2 onions, 1 small, 1 large 1/4 cup matzo meal 3 eggs, beaten 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper Salad oil for frying
Grate potatoes and small onion in processor with steel blade, turning off and on three times (or grate by hand). Place in strainer and press out as much moisture as possible. Chop and saute' large onion in oil until translucent. Remove to a large bowl, add all other ingredients and mix well. Form by hand into patties and fry in hot oil on each side until brown and crisp. Serve with applesauce or blueberry topping.
APPLESAUCE TOPPING 2 cups apple juice, preferably unfiltered 6 pounds stayman, winesap or granny smith apples, peeled, cored and quartered 3 cups brown sugar or to taste 1 teaspoon cinnamon
Combine ingredients in a heavy non-aluminum 5-quart saucepan. Let mixture come to a boil, stirring. Then lower heat to medium and cook, stirring to break up apple pieces, until apples are tender. If desired, put through a food mill or processor for smoother applesauce.
BLUEBERRY TOPPING 1/2 cup frozen blueberries 1 tablespoon water 2 teaspoons sugar, or use sugar substitute.
Combine ingredients in saucepan, cover and simmer slowly until berries are soft.
FICHUELA DE HANUKAH (24 pastries) 5 cups flour 1 teaspoon salt 2 eggs, slightly beaten 1/4 cup oil 3/4 cup warm water 2 cups oil for frying Confectioners' sugar or sugar glaze (see below)
Measure flour into large mixing bowl and stir in salt, eggs, then 1/4 cup oil, and finally the water. This will make a fairly stiff dough. Knead vigorously for 5 minutes on an unfloured surface or until dough feels smooth and elastic. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and allow to rest for at least an hour. Divide dough into 4 balls. Roll out each ball on lightly floured surface to make a rectangle about 9-by-18 inches. Dough should be as thin as possible. Cut the dough into 6 strips about 1 1/2 inches wide and 18 inches long. Heat salad oil in frying pan. Gently lift one end of a strip of dough in your left hand. Pierce the other end with a fork; place this end in the hot oil. As it fries, gently turn the fork, rolling the dough around it and forming a pinwheel. It goes very quickly, the dough puffing up to look like a pastry rose. Do not allow it to remain in oil too long. When fried, dough should remain almost white, with a slight golden color. Lift out with a slotted spoon. Repeat until all dough is used. Coat with sugar glaze or confectioners' sugar. Any scraps can be fried and glazed.
SUGAR GLAZE 1 1/4 cups sugar 1 cup water
Heat the sugar and water together in a saucepan, stirring until sugar dissolves. Boil until mixture is syrupy, but be careful not to let it brown. Keep warm while using. Dip fichuelas into syrup and let them drain. From "The Hanukkah Book" by Mae Shafter Rockland
SELMA SCHWADRON'S ISRAELI DESSERT LATKES 2 cups sifted flour, more if necessary 2 teaspoons sugar 2 eggs, beaten 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 ounce compressed yeast 1 cup lukewarm water Vegetable oil for frying Confectioners' sugar for sprinkling
Into a large bowl put sifted flour, sugar, eggs and salt. Crumble yeast in warm water and dissolve well. Combine with flour mixture. Dough will be quite sticky. Oil your hands and knead dough by hand on a floured board or with a dough hook until smooth, adding more flour if necessary. Set aside, covered, in a warm place to rise for one hour. Then knead again and return to bowl to rise for another hour. When there are air bubbles in the dough and it has risen, turn out onto a floured board and knead lightly. Return to bowl. Heat oil in deep fryer to 400 degrees. Using a tablespoon, pull off pieces and put in hot oil. When latkes rise to the top and are puffed and lightly browned, remove with a slotted spoon. Drain on paper towels, sprinkle with confectioners' sugar and serve hot. Recipe may be doubled.