After dusk on Dec. 14, candles lit throughout the world will signal the beginning of Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday otherwise known as the Feast of Lights or the Feast of Dedication. In America, what was once a simple candle ceremony highlighted by the spinning of dreidels (tops) and the consumption of a few potato latkes (pancakes) has taken on an increased festive importance since the irse of ethnic identification in the 1960s. Many American Jews now celebrate Hanukkah for a full eight nights, each night marked by a different, and joyous, party.

The eight nights of Hanukkah date back to the event which the observance commemorates -- the Maccabees' victory over Antiochus of Syria in 164 B.C. Upon going to cleanse and rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem, the Maccabee brothers found enough sacred oil to light the menorah (candelabra) for only one day; but, through a miracle, one day's supply lasted for eight. In memory of that miracle, each night of Hanukkah sees the lighting of an additional candle until eight of them glow in the menorah.

Foods made with or cooked in oil during the Hanukkah season came to symbolize the cleansing and rededication of the Temple after the defilement by the Syrians, and cooking oil -- rather than potato latkes, as Americans often assume -- became the central gastronomic theme during this holiday.

The prominence of potato latkes as the traditional Hanukkah dish in this country lies in the Eastern European ancestry of a majority of American jews: goose fat was readily available in Russia and Poland during winter and it was used to cook potato pancakes, a culinary tradition the Jews of Russia learned from their non-Jewish neighbors and brought to America.

So, too, have Jews in other countries adapted fried wintertime dishes to be eaten at Hanukkah. Often the only difference is the omission of the prohibitive pork fat. German Jews eat gingerbread cookies; Moroccans eat fijuelas, deep-fried dough dipped in honey; Russians also favor rugelach, cream cheese melt-in-your-mouth cookies; while Syrians eat ma'amoul, literally cookies "stuffed" with dates or nuts (cookies also eaten by Moslems to break the fast of Ramadan).

But the appeal of these cookies need not be limited to Hanukkah. The recipes can be equally enjoyed by those who celebrate Christmas or other winter holidays. Recipes Rugelach (cream cheese cookies)

In the Middle Ages it was traditional to eat cheesecake at Hanukkah in commemoration of the cheesecakes or pancakes Judith gave to General Holofernes. After eating these cakes, the general became thirsty for wine, which Judith also served him. Soon he swooned, Judith slew him, and the Jews were saved. Today many people serve sour cream pancakes at Hanukkah in memory of Judith. Others serve rugelach, a half-moon cream cheese cookie -- a far cry from the original cheesecake maybe, but nevertheless a melt-in-the-mouth delicacy perfect for the fanciest party. Cookie Dough Makes 32 1/2 pound unsalted butter, softened 8 ounces cream cheese, softened 2 cups all-purpose flour 1/2 cup sugar for topping

1. In a mixing bowl or food processor, cream the butter and cream cheese together.

2. Beat in the flour, little by little. Knead the dough lightly until all the flour is incorporated.

3. Refrigerate at least one hour. Divide the dough into two portions.

4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

5. 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 16 pie-shaped wedges. If the dough is sticky, cut it with a little flour.

6. Sprinkle or spread the filling of your choice (see recipes below) on the little wedge. Beginning at the wide edge, roll the dough up toward the point. l

7. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet and carefully sprinkle with a tiny bit of the sugar. Repeat with the rest of the dough and filling.

8. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, or until golden. Raisin Nut Filling 1/2 cup sugar 1/2 cup seedless raisins 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1 cup finely chopped nuts

Combine the ingredients and fill cookies as directed. Strawberry Jam Filling 1 cup ground almonds 1 cup stawberry jam

Combine the ingredients and fill cookies as directed. Ma'amoul (nut-filled cookies)

If you have ever visited the marketplace of Jerusalem, you may have noticed small wooden imprinted molds small wooden imprinted molds with handles -- implements whose significance even the merchant was hard put to explain. They are ma'amoul molds -- from ma'amoul, the Arabic word for "filled" -- used to mold filled cookies eaten by Jews and Arabs throughout the Middle East, especially in Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt.

You press a piece of short-pastry dough the size of a walnut into the crevices of the ma'amoul mold, insert a tablespoon of date or nut filling, and close the pastry with your fingers. Holding the handle of the wooden mold, you slam it on the table, letting the enclosed dough fall out to reveal a lovely designed cookie. After the cookie is baked and rolled in confectioners' sugar, the design stands out even more. Of course, the ma'amoul mold is not necessary to the preparation of these sweets, but it certainly adds to the beauty. The tines of a fork, tweezers with a serrated edge, or a tool of your own devising will do quite well.

The following ma'amoul recipe came from Aleppo to the Syrian Jewish community in Ocean Parkway, Brooklyn. These cookies are served at Purim. A similar cookie, called karabij here (nataife in Syria), topped with marshmallow fluff, is also served at Purim. Arasibajweh -- rolled cookies from the same dough and stuffed with dates -- are served at the New Year or Hanukkah. Cookie Dough Makes 35-40 2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour 1/2 cup semolina 2 1/2 sticks margarine or 2 sticks butter 2 teaspoons vegetable oil 1/4-1/2 cup water

1. Combine flour, semolina, margarine and vegetable oil. Add water gradually. Blend well (a food processor is splendid for this). Cover and set aside in refirgerator for 10 to 15 minutes.

2. Combine walnuts with cinnamon and sugar.

3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

4. Either use the ma'amoul mold described above or take a piece of dough about the size of a walnut. Roll it into a ball and hollow out the center. Inside, place a heaping teaspoon of walnut filling (see recipe below). With your hands, mold the dough closed.

5. Place each cookie on an ungreased cookie sheet. With the tines of a fork or tweezers with a serrated edge, make designs on the top of the cookies, being sure not to penetrate the skin.

6. Bake for about 30 minutes. Do not brown -- the cookies should look white. Cool. When hard, roll in confectioners' sugar. Filling 1 1/2 cups roughly ground walnuts 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 cup sugar