Hanukkah (“Chanukah,” if you prefer) is one of the dozen-ish multicultural Festivals of Lights that occur yearly around the bleak Winter Solstice. In 2021, Hanukkah lands on Nov. 28-Dec. 5. Jews use a lunar calendar, and some years, this minor holiday overlaps Thanksgiving while other years it snuggles up to Christmas. Hanukkah commemorates a victory that essentially celebrates making do with a broken supply chain –– and who can’t relate to that right now?
About a century before the birth of Baby Jesus, the Maccabees, a small group of Jewish zealots, fought a war with the Syrian-Greeks over monotheism. King Antiochus IV stormed Jerusalem, killed a bunch of Jews (and anyone else in his way), and took over the holy temple. When the temple was reclaimed and reconsecrated, there was only enough olive oil to light the lamps for one night, and it would have taken weeks to press and consecrate more oil.
Miraculously, the oil in the temple lasted for eight nights, and we commemorate this by lighting candles and, like most Jewish festivals, by eating traditional food. Sufganyot (jelly-filled donuts) and latkes (potato pancakes) are fried to remind us of the miracle of the holy oil in the menorah when the Maccabees purified the temple after the place was defiled with pig’s blood (messy) and idols (rude).
I have attempted sufganyot exactly once in my kitchen. Don’t try these at home unless you have an industrial-sized Fry Daddy or own some kind of cast-iron cauldron or perhaps a cleaned-up turkey deep fryer. Fortunately, Funky Town Donuts (two locations) has sufganyot just like Bubbe used to make on its seasonal menu this month. Manna Donuts (2211 W. Berry St., 817-207-0336) offers cream- or raspberry-filled donuts for a buck apiece every day!
As far as latkes go, the potato pancakes are easier to semi-home make. You just need an Irish field’s worth of taters, shredded and patted dry –– that’s the key. Wet shredded potato yields a gloopy, messy latke. Most recipes call for grated onion along with peeled spuds, a couple of eggs, spices, and a few tablespoons of matzoh meal. If you missed that during Passover and you don’t live by the good Tom Thumb that has the best Jewish food selection (3100 Hulen St.), sub regular flour.
If shredding your own spuds is a deterrent, thaw a bag of frozen shredded potatoes, dry well, and proceed. Unlike sufganyot, latkes don’t have to be fully immersed in oil to end up tasty. However, you’ll need at least two rolls worth of paper towels for draining the oil-drenched goodies, along with a fully functional above-the-stove fan. This year, I attempted latkes made with leftover mashed potatoes and riced cauliflower. They weren’t pretty, but they also weren’t the worst thing ever to come out of my kitchen.
Because Hanukkah this year is closer to Thanksgiving than it is to Christmas, the interwebs are flooded with recipes that use stuffing as a binder instead of the eggs and matzoh meal. Take two cups of leftover stuffing, one large peeled and shredded potato, and one egg, mix, and season if your stuffing isn’t already seasoned enough. Drop a couple tablespoons of the mix into hot oil and smoosh, then flip after about five minutes. Google “Thanksgivukkah,” and you’ll find a load of these hybrid recipes.
Sadly, neither Carshon’s Deli (3133 Cleburne Rd., 817-923-1907) nor Weinberger’s Deli (604 S. Main St., Grapevine, 817-416-5577) offers latkes. The nearest restaurant serving the traditional potato cakes is Cindi’s New York Deli and Bakery (multiple locations in Dallas). Whole Foods Market (3720 Vision Dr.) and Central Market (4651 W. Fwy.) have chef-prepared versions if you want ’em.
A final thought for celebrating Hanukkah 2021: Last year, singer-actor Daveed Diggs, who’s Black and Jewish, entered the not-very-crowded holiday song market with his adorable tune “Puppy for Hanukkah,” which summarizes the holiday beautifully. During COVID, my family actually foster-failed a puppy for Hanukkah. Willie is an indeterminate breed rescued from under a church in Parker County by Mansfield’s Gracie Lou Rescue & Rehab, Inc. If you want a puppy for Hanukkah (or Christmas), and you’ve paused to remember that animals are a fur-ever commitment, Fort Worth Animal Care & Control is joining with the Humane Society of North Texas to find a home for our area’s homeless pets during their mega-adoption event Sat-Sun, Dec. 18-19. All animals have been vetted, vaccinated, spayed or neutered, and microchipped.
Whatever you do — or make or buy this season — remember, as the Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said, “Though my faith is not your faith and your faith is not mine, if we are each free to light our own flame, we can banish some of the darkness of the world.”
With apologies to Joan Nathan, the acknowledged queen of Jewish cooking in America, the Food Network’s recipe is a lot simpler.
1-1/2 Yukon Gold or russet potatoes, peeled
1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 T flour or matzoh meal (more if the mixture is too thin)
1-1/2 teaspoons salt and pepper
Vegetable oil (olive or other heat-stable oil) for frying
In a food processor, grate the potatoes. Line a sieve with cheesecloth and transfer potatoes to the sieve. Set sieve over a bowl and twist cheesecloth into a pouch, squeezing out some moisture. Let mixture drain for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, pour off liquid from the bowl but leave the white potato starch that settles in the bottom of the bowl.
To that starch, add shallots, eggs, flour, and 1-1/2 teaspoons of salt and freshly ground pepper. Return drained potatoes to the mixture and toss to combine.
Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Line a baking pan with paper towels. In a large skillet, heat 1/4 inch of oil over medium high heat until hot. Drop heaping tablespoonfuls of potato mixture and cook for 3 to 4 minutes a side — latkes should be golden and crisp on both sides. Eat right away or keep warm in oven. Serve with applesauce or sour cream.