Forget the Latkes

Forget the latkes. Deep- six the jelly-filled doughnuts (soofganiyot). It’s Hanukkah, and I’m serving cheese.

Jews were celebrating Hanukkah long before the first potato was shipped from the New World to the Old, probably in the first half of the sixteenth century. As it turns out, potatoes weren’t an overnight success. Only when famine threatened in the late eighteenth century were farmers in northern and central Europe motivated to overcome their fears and plant potatoes. And it wasn’t until back-to-back crop failures in 1839 and 1840 made starvation a distinct possibility that farmers in Eastern Europe followed suit.

So what did European Jews eat on Hanukkah pre-potato? Think cheese.

Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Assyria, sent an army led by the general Holofernes to lay siege to a town near Jerusalem. A young Jewish widow named Judith went  to Holofernes, and he-taken with her beauty-invited her to his tent. As she had planned, Judith fed him salty cheese washed down with large quantities of wine. When he fell into a drunken stupor, Judith cut off his head with his own sword. The Assyrians, upon learning that their general was dead, panicked and fled.

Judith’s story has nothing to do with Hanukkah. The holiday celebrates the Maccabees’ victory over the army led by the Syrian king Antiochus in 165 B.C. The Temple had been desecrated and the sacred lights extinguished. When the Jews went to rekindle them, they found only enough ritually pure oil to last for a single day. But according to tradition, the oil lasted for eight days and nights, long enough for new supplies to become available.

In remembrance of the miracle, Jews throughout the world eat foods cooked in oil during the eight days of Hanukkah. In Israel, jelly filled doughnuts (soofganiyot) deep-fried in oil are a favorite treat, while Jews whose ancestors lived in areas bordering the Mediterranean are partial to the fried pastries ubiquitous in that part of the world.

While the events recounted in the story of Judith predate the Maccabees’ victory  by several centuries, the two events became entwined during the Middle Ages. As a result, dairy products were, for countless generations, eaten during Hanukkah. Cheese pancakes were one of the more popular options, and serving potato latkes with sour cream may well be a continuation of the tradition.

The following recipe honors both Hanukkah traditions. 

Ashkenazic Sweet Cheese Pancakes 

About 30 3-inch pancakes

1 pound cottage, pot or ricotta cheese

4 large eggs

About ¾ cup all-purpose flour or matza meal

2 tablespoons butter, melted, or sour cream

1 to 2 tablespoons sugar or honey

½ teaspoon vanilla extract or ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon salt

Vegetable oil or butter for frying

  1. In a food processor or blender, puree the cheese, eggs, flour or matza meal, butter or sour cream, sugar or honey, vanilla or cinnamon, and salt until smooth. Or beat the eggs with an electric mixer until thick and creamy, then beat in the cheese and the remaining batter ingredients.
  2. Heat a large skillet or griddle over medium heat. Lightly grease with oil or butter.
  3. In batches, drop the batter by heaping tablespoonfuls and fry until bubbles form on the tops and the bottoms are lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes.
  4. Turn and fry until golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. (The pancakes may be kept warm by placing in a single layer on a baking sheet in a 200-degree oven.) Serve accompanied with sour cream, yogurt, maple syrup, flavored butter, jam, cinnamon-sugar, or fresh fruit.)

Adapted from a recipe in “The World of Jewish Cooking” (Simon & Schuster, 1996) by Gil Marks.

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