We all know Hanukkah: eight days of fun, lighting candles, spinning dreidels, having parties and eating oil-drenched latkes or deep-fried fritters soaked in honey. All this in celebration of the liberation of the Second Temple and the miracle of the oil wrought by Judas Maccabeus and his brothers in 165 B.C.E.
But did we know about the woman whose valor and courage inspired the Maccabees, and in whose memory we also eat cheese and dairy products at Hanukkah?
She was the beautiful widow Judith, whose story is found in the Apocrypha (a group of Jewish historic and literary works that was not destined to be part of the Bible). Her beauty had enthralled the dreaded enemy general Holofernes, who was laying siege to both her Judean city Bethulia and her own affections. One night she dined with him and fed him a salty cheese, followed by quantities of wine to quench his ensuing thirst. When he had finally drunk himself into a stupor, she cut off his head with a sword and saved her city.
Legend has it that when the Maccabees were facing impossible odds in their battle against the occupying Syrians, they reminded themselves of Judith’s amazing feat and were inspired to go on. So for the miracle of the eight days, we eat foods sizzled in oil and for the inspiration of Judith, we eat cheese!
What, then could be more appropriate for Hanukkah (which means “dedication” in Hebrew) than to dedicate one of our festive meals to both Judith and the Maccabees with an Israeli pancake made with cheese? It can be served with cinnamon sugar or applesauce and sour cream as a main course, made as an accompaniment to a main course, or served as a dessert with a warm fruit sauce and spice-sweetened whipped cream.
Israeli Cheese Pancakes
2 cups cottage cheese
or soft cheese, like ricotta
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. sugar
1-1/2 tsp. salt (or to taste)
3 Tbs. butter or margarine
1 Tbs. oil
1/2 tsp. nutmeg, ginger or cinnamon (optional)
Put the cheese and eggs into separate bowls. Beat the eggs with a whisk till light and fluffy, then stir into the cheese.
Melt one tablespoon of the butter or margarine and stir into the cheese mixture, along with the flour and seasonings to make a thick batter.
Put the remaining butter (or margarine) and the oil into a heavy skillet over medium heat. As soon as the butter starts to foam, drop tablespoons of the batter into the pan and flatten slightly with the back of the spoon. Fry gently until risen and golden brown on one side, then turn and cook until the other side is golden. Serve immediately if possible, or hold warm in the oven. May freeze individually, package in freezer containers then thaw and heat in the oven to serve.
Serves 4 as a main course
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Puddings of different sorts are also Hanukkah fare in both Ashkenazi and Sephardi households, whether sweet, fruity dessert puddings or succulent, casseroled kibbeh, or orange-water perfumed flan. This two-cheese apple pudding is my “Judith-keit” version of a dish found in Lady Judith Montefiore’s Jewish Manual of 1846, the first Jewish cookbook written in English.
Cheesy “Menorah Apple Pudding”
2 lbs. pie apples, peeled and cored
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup sour cream
3 eggs, beaten
2 Tbs. apricot preserves
1/4 cup flour
1 Tbs. lemon juice, 2 tsp. lemon zest
4 Tbs. orange juice, 2 Tbs. orange zest
3/4 cup plus 2 Tbs. soft butter or margarine
1 cup sugar
2 cups ground almonds, walnuts
or hazelnuts (or a combination)
Cut the apples in 1/2-inch thick slices and mix with the sugar, the cheeses, the sour cream, the eggs and the flour. Melt the preserves with the juices and zests and mix into the apples. Lightly grease a three-quart baking dish and put in the apple mixture.
Beat together all the topping ingredients until smooth , then spread evenly over the apples. Bake 40 minutes at 350ş or till golden and firm to the gentle touch. Serve plain or with yogurt, crčme fraiche, or even ice cream!
Serves 6 to 8 for dessert
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The sixth night of Hanukkah is Rosh Chodesh, the monthly celebration of the new moon. Moroccan Jews often gather for a festive Hanukkah Rosh Chodesh, featuring special main dishes followed by a series of desserts. Try this Moroccan couscous with a little glass of milk or buttermilk to honor Judith — for a sixth night — or any Hanukkah night’s special celebration. I’m giving a simplified version of preparing the couscous, inspired by the wonderful Sephardi cook and writer, Claudia Roden.
Moroccan Couscous with Nuts & Fruits
1 lb. medium-ground couscous
2-1/2 cups warm water
1 tsp. salt
4 to 5 Tbs. melted butter or margarine
3/4 cup chopped pitted dates
3/4 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup sugar
3 Tbs. orange juice or sweet wine
3/4 cup finely chopped toasted almonds
3/4 cup finely chopped toasted walnuts
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 tsp. orange zest
Extra ground cinnamon for decoration
Put the couscous into a large bowl and add the warm water and salt, stirring so the water is absorbed evenly. After 10 minutes, when the couscous has become somewhat plump and tender, add 2 to 3 Tbs. butter or margarine and rub the grain between your fingers to air it and break up lumps. Stir in the dates, raisins, sugar and juice or wine. Let rest for an hour or more to absorb the flavors.
Heat the couscous in a cheesecloth-lined strainer above boiling water or in an authentic couscousier, or in a 325? oven covered well with foil for 20–25 minutes. Turn out into a large bowl and fluff with two forks, adding the remaining butter or margarine, nuts, orange zest and 1/2 tsp. cinnamon. Pile lightly onto a platter and gently form into the traditional shape of a mountain. Decorate with stripes of ground cinnamon radiating from the center to the perimeter. Garnish with almond-stuffed dates as a special treat. Serves 6
Emily Moore is a local chef with 30 years experience in her field. Her business, Emily’s Kitchen, provides culinary services to all facets of the food industry and catering to the Jewish community. She also teaches culinary arts at Edmonds Community College.