As fall turns into winter, the scent in the air that tells me it’s holiday time isn’t pine needles, but the hunger-inducing fragrance of potato latkes frying in oil. Hot, crispy, onion-y, this savory potato pancake is the featured item at Hanukkah dinners and parties, and the focus of latke-eating contests.
Before the New World potato made its way across the Atlantic a few hundred years ago, cheese or buckwheat fritters were the fried food of choice for European Jews celebrating Hanukkah. But with crop failures and the introduction of this versatile root vegetable, potatoes were adapted as the main ingredient.
But the ingredient that makes them special is the oil, which in ancient times was used for fueling lamps. The holiday itself is also known as The Festival of Lights.
Light in the darkness
You know it’s getting close to Hanukkah when sunset dips earlier than five in the afternoon. By the time the darkest day of the year approaches, we in the Northwest can appreciate a desire, actually a real need, for light. While we may feel this lack of Vitamin D more strongly here, it’s a need that religions and cultures worldwide have addressed and adapted into their winter celebrations.
In Bellingham, light-filled events include the giant lit-up Christmas tree at the Depot Market Square downtown, winter solstice “bring back the light” observances, and in the last few years a large Hanukkah menorah lighting on the Village Green in Fairhaven.
The Jewish eight-day holiday of Hanukkah always occurs on the Hebrew lunar calendar on the 25th of Kislev. On the Gregorian calendar it usually shows up sometime in December, though in 2013 it coincided with Thanksgiving, which led to American Jews wishing each other Happy Thanksgivukkah! This year, Hanukkah begins in the evening of Dec. 16 (Jewish holidays begin in the evening, and last through the following day till sunset).
Hanukkah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew, is a minor Jewish celebration that marks a military victory and religious freedom, harking back to 165-168 B.C.E. That’s when the Greco-Syrian ruler Antiochus had invaded Jerusalem, outlawed Judaism, and desecrated the holy Temple. A small band of Jews known as the Maccabees successfully fought back and retook Jerusalem. They cleaned up the Temple, re-dedicating it for worship and lighting the eternal lamp. The olive oil salvaged from the debris was only enough to keep the lamp burning for one day. It took eight days to get more oil; somehow, the one-day supply lasted for eight, the miracle we celebrate.
Hanukkah is a holiday celebrated mostly at home, centered around the dining table. Tradition is to light an increasing number of candles on each of the eight nights on our Hannukah menorah (called a hanukkiah), play dreidel (a spinning top game), and to eat foods cooked in oil to remember the miracle.
Over the millennia, Jews have dispersed around the globe, and new foods and customs have been added. In America, with the influence of Christmas at around the same time, gift-giving has also been added to the customs.
Bellingham melting pot
Hanukkah has been celebrated in Bellingham for a little more than 100 years. Congregation Beth Israel was established in 1908 by immigrants who were mostly from a small town in Lithuania, as well as some Jews who moved into the area after the 19th century Gold Rush. Diane Garmo, whose great-grandparents were among these first Jewish settlers in Whatcom County, has fond memories of celebrating the holiday in the family home in the Lettered Streets, where four generations of her family have lived. She recalls that during her childhood, Hanukkah candles came in only one color: Orange. Now, you can find them in just about any color, including rainbow!
Over the years, the Bellingham Jewish community has grown from about 20 families to more than 200 from all over the world, including Israel, creating a Northwest melting pot. While latkes have been the centerpiece of Hanukkah celebrations here, these newcomers have brought the traditional holiday food from Israel — jelly-filled doughnuts, or sufganiyot. Now, the annual community Hanukkah party includes both.
Sagit Hall, who was born in Israel, has enjoyed cooking sufganyot for Bellingham friends. Hall says “the peak of winter joy is most definitely the smell of sufganiyot fresh out of the frying pan. This blessed smell of a warm sufganiya is the perfect antidote for the winter blues (especially during those gray winter days of the Pacific Northwest).” She said she loves seeing friends and family smile while eating them, “while their noses get a red dot from the jam and their cheeks get a puff of powdered sugar.”
It’s all about the food
I have been known to say, everything is better fried. Which may be why I love Hanukkah food so much. Latkes usually are served as a side dish, but can be a whole meal for me. Many people like to eat them with sour cream, or apple sauce. I love them without adornment, hot and crispy, with a dash of salt to bring out the flavor.
Growing up, we just used Russet potatoes to make the beloved treat. But as I began cooking latkes myself, I learned the joys of experimenting with the ingredients. I found that mixing different kinds of potatoes, such as sweet potatoes, yams, red potatoes, or gold, added depth of flavor and looked pretty, too. For a real Northwest twist, some people even add salmon to the mix!
You can find latkes on some traditional deli menus, especially in bigger cities like Seattle or Vancouver, B.C. But they are also being adapted into menus in new and interesting ways – a Seattle food truck makes sandwiches using pressed latkes in place of the bread! While you can definitely enjoy these savory treats year-round, there is something about the smells and tastes that make them a special December treat. There are shortcuts to making latkes – boxed mixes, or using frozen hash browns as the base for the pancake – but nothing compares to making your own using fresh ingredients. So try the basic recipe, then feel free to add ingredients and sauces and create your own tradition to light up the darkest days of winter. (recipes on the the following page…)
Sagit Hall’s Sufganiyot recipe
(known to cure the winter blues)
Ingredients (makes 20 small sufganiyot):
3 cups flour
25 grams fresh yeast
4 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
3 Tbsp oil
2 tsp brandy
1 tsp orange peel
3/4 to 1 cup water
canola oil for frying
1/2 cup raspberry jam
Place the flour in a mixer bowl. Add yeast and sugar, stir and add salt.
Make a well in the center and place eggs, oil, brandy and orange peel.
Blend slowly. Gradually add water. Knead until dough is smooth and doesn’t stick to the sides of the bowl.
Cover and allow the dough to rise in a warm place for about an hour, until the dough doubles in volume.
Roll out the dough to about 1/3 inch thickness. Cut out circles using a small glass, roll into balls and set aside to rise in a warm place for about 20 minutes, until double in volume.
Heat oil in a deep frying pan. Place a few of the balls in the hot oil with their puffed up side down. Cover the pan for about one minute. Remove the lid and fry for another minute. Turn the sufganiyot.
Remove from pan and place on paper towels. Fill in with jam using a syringe. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.
Melissa’s favorite latke recipe
Over the years I have incorporated many recipes into my own.
Ingredients (makes about 2 dozen):
4-5 potatoes (you can use just Russet, or mix it up. I use Russet, red, Yukon gold, and about half a yam)
1 medium onion (I prefer sweet varieties, like Vidalia)
2 ounces of starch (you can use flour or mazta meal; use corn or potato starch to make them gluten free!)
Salt and pepper to taste
Oil for frying (use vegetable oil for cooking at high temperatures; you can use olive oil, but be careful because it has a lower burn point)
Grate the potatoes and onions. Many recipes call for peeling the potatoes first and soaking them in cold water while you chop up the onions. But I like to leave the potato skins on (more nutrition and color). Also, hard-core cooks say hand-grating the potatoes is better, because it makes the mixture less wet. But in the interest of time and knuckle safety, I use my Cuisinart.
After grating, salt the potato and onion mixture and put in a colander to drain. Squeeze out as much liquid as possible.
Add eggs, starch or flour, and the salt and pepper and mix.
Heat a pan (I like using a cast-iron skillet) and add oil. I use just enough oil to get the latkes frying, though some recipes say to use 2-inches of oil. Works either way.
Drop about 2 tablespoons of the mixture into the pan and flatten with a spatula. Cook for about 2 minutes on each side, until golden.
Place on paper towel to drain off the oil. If you’re making a big batch, put them on a cookie sheet in the oven to keep warm.
Serve hot with: applesauce, sour cream, or just an extra dash of salt.