The story behind the fried food tradition of the holiday
Long before Adam Sandler’s reminder to “put on your yarmulke, here comes Hanukkah,” Jewish children were singing homage to their “dreidel, dreidel, dreidel.”
Like many holiday traditions, Hanukkah celebrations have evolved over the years. The gifts might be more elaborate and the songs might change, but some things will always remain the same, said Rabbi Matt Cohen of Congregation B’nai Israel in Galveston.
“We celebrate two miracles of Hanukkah — what may be the first recorded military coup for religious freedom and the miracle of the oil,” Cohen said. “As legend has it, when the Israelites returned to a desecrated temple in Jerusalem, there was only enough oil to light the lamp for one night. Because the oil continued to burn for eight days, we celebrate by eating foods prepared with oil.”
Fried potato pancakes, or latkes, fried jelly doughnuts and noodle pudding called lokshen kugel, are staples of a Hanukkah diet. There are as many versions of kugel as there are Jewish households. Some are savory and add a green vegetable purée and cottage cheese to boiled egg noodles, while the most popular version is sweet and might be garnished with dried fruit such as prunes and raisins.
Shelley Nussenblatt Kessler enjoys making her mother’s sweet kugel recipe for friends and family, she said. She grew up on Galveston Island and remembers polishing the brass menorah in the days leading up to Hanukkah and enjoying cheerful, hand-made decorations such as strings of crepe paper and dreidels. She’s a “purist” when it comes to her mother’s recipe for sweet kugel and never varies from the simple recipe of “boiled egg noodles, sugar, cinnamon and lots of oil,” she said.
“Hanukkah” is the preferred spelling, although there are many variations.
“The only pure spelling is in Hebrew,” Cohen said. “All the rest are in translation. And none of those would necessarily be incorrect.”
Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days beginning the 25th day of Kislev of the Jewish, or lunar, calendar. This year, the holiday begins on the evening of Dec. 2. Aside from fried foods, a typical Hanukkah meal will include a potted roast of brisket with root vegetables, eggy challah bread and, as with most Jewish holidays, ample wine.
And while we tend to eat, drink and make merry during the holiday season, Cohen reminds us that certain traditions carry great meaning that can get lost in the custom of gift-giving.
“When we play dreidel, we’re telling the story of how ‘a great miracle happened there,’ an acronym spelled out by the Hebrew letters that appear on it,” he said. “And when we light the menorah and place it in our front windows for all to see, we are shining the light of religious freedom.”
SAVORY VEGETABLE AND NOODLE KUGEL
Recipe from Bernice Cohen Davis
1 (12-ounce) package of wide egg noodles
1 medium onion
1⁄4 cup oil
1 (12-ounce) package fresh spinach
1 cup low-fat cottage cheese
1 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon parsley
Boil wide egg noodles in salted water. Drain, reserving a few tablespoons of pasta liquid. Toss noodles with 1⁄4 cup of oil and set aside. Roughly chop and sauté one medium onion and a 12-ounce package of fresh spinach. Place spinach mixture in a food processor, adding 1 tablespoon of parsley.
Use pasta water as needed. Combine low-fat cottage cheese and sour cream with spinach mixture, add to noodles. Pour into a greased, 9-by-13-inch pan. Bake for 45 minutes at 350 F. Serve with tomato and cucumber salad.
FELICE’S SWEET KUGEL
Recipe from Shelley Nussenblatt Kessler
2 (12-ounce) packages of wide egg noodles
1 cup oil
1 cup sugar
11⁄2 tablespoons of cinnamon
Salt to taste
Boil in salted water wide egg noodles, about 10 minutes. Drain. Mix the following into the noodles: about 1 cup oil, 1 cup sugar, 3 eggs and 1½ tablespoons of cinnamon. Salt to taste.
Pour into a greased, 9-by-13-inch pan. Bake for 1 hour at 350 F.
Chocolate Hersey’s Kisses
Spread a bit of peanut butter on one end of a marshmallow and attach an unwrapped chocolate Hersey’s Kiss. Place pretzel stick through the other side of marshmallow to make edible dreidels.