Growing up in a small town in western Massachusetts, my circle of friends in Hebrew school consisted of children who, like me, were the grandchildren of Ashkenazim, immigrants from Europe to the East. At Hanukkah, we decorated with construction paper chains (no lights or garlands for us). We lit multicolored candles on the hanukkiyah, the Hanukkah candelabra, which my maternal grandmother had taken from Lithuania. These candles were from the same little blue boxes you can buy in the supermarket today. No fancy schmancy, hand dipped candles at this time.
The gifts were simple too, but to increase the level of excitement my parents hid them all over the house. I still remember the thrill of finding a John Gnagy drawing learning set under the living room sofa. (Unfortunately, despite Mr. Gnagy’s valiant efforts, I never learned to draw.)
And the food: latkes, potato pancakes, with applesauce or sour cream, and tiny yellow mesh bags filled with gold foil-covered gelt, pieces of chocolate.
That was all for Hanukkah.
Then I moved to Israel and landed at Kibbutz Malkiya, so far north that it was right on the border with Lebanon. The kibbutzniks were mostly Mizrahim, immigrants from Arab countries, and their food offerings were quite different from what I was used to. Vegetable salad, olives and yogurt for breakfast, do you like it?
When Hanukkah arrived, I was working in one of the kindergarten houses, where I expected to see golden and crispy latkes being served to the children. No, it’s for the Ashkenazim, the head nanny told me. She then introduced me to the sufganiyot, jelly donuts, and put me to work injecting raspberry jam into dozens of dough balls before frying them.
Curious about the source of the tradition, I did some research. North African Jews have a long Hanukkah tradition of eating sfenj, small fried donuts. In Israel, where Jews gathered “from all corners of the earth,” North Africans met and mingled with Eastern Europeans. Polish ponchkes and African sfenj merged to become sufganiyot.
Since then, I have learned other Hanukkah food traditions from all over the world, but two unique characteristics define them: They are all fried in oil or contain cheese. Sometimes both. (Except for the brisket. Why the brisket is considered the centerpiece of a traditional Hanukkah meal alongside latkes, I don’t understand. It is not fried or dairy. But there you go. A meal of brisket and milk. latkes is considered by many to be the quintessential Ashkenazi Chanukah meal.)
The custom of frying in oil is based on the story of the Maccabees, who staged a revolt against the oppression of the Syrian Greek king Antiochus IV Epihanes. At the end of the war, when the Maccabees returned to Jerusalem to reclaim and re-dedicate the Holy Temple, they found that the troops fighting under General Lysias had desecrated it. Legend tells us that the Maccabees found a sealed jar in the Temple that contained enough olive oil for just one day. But this small amount miraculously burned for eight days, allowing time until more ritually pure oil could be squeezed out and brought to Jerusalem.
Fried donuts called bimuelos in Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language, are the most popular Sephardic Hanukkah treat. They are one of the emblematic foods of the conversos, the Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, but who secretly practiced their Judaism. After the expulsion from Spain in 1492, the Sephardim spread throughout the Mediterranean world, where in some communities they garnish their donuts with a honey syrup flavored with orange or rose water.
My Cuban-born friend Mattie Castiel (aka Worcester’s intrepid Health and Human Services Commissioner) cooks the bimuelos recipe he learned from his Turkish ancestors. Once, she suggested that I pit her bimuelos against my latkes any day. No one loses in this contest. Here we go, Mattie!
The Greeks call similar fried cabbages loukoumades, and they dip them in honey or sugar. They believe the Maccabees ate these pastries during the revolt because they were easy to prepare for the fighters who had little time to sit down for a full meal.
The tradition of eating cheese-based foods is rooted in Judith’s story. Although the book does not mention Chanukah and is not even included in the Jewish canon (nor the Book of Maccabees, for that matter), it is believed to have been written about the same Seven Years’ War. We read that in his quest to conquer Judea, General Holofernes besieged the city of Bethulia, cutting off its water supply. Although the city elders were ready to surrender, hoping to avoid famine, the Hasmonean Judith was not. The beautiful widow was able to make her way to the tent of Holofernes. Once inside, she gave him some cheese. Salted cheese. The cheese made her thirsty, so she gave him wine to quench that thirst. Lots of wine. Which of course made him drunk – and drowsy. Once the general fell asleep, Judith grabbed his sword and beheaded it, bringing the head back to his village in a basket.
The next morning, when Holofernes’ soldiers saw the headless body of their leader, they fled in terror. In honor of Judith’s courage, we’re including cheese in our Hanukkah menus. Turkish boyos (spinach and cheese filo pastries), Middle Eastern sambusak (empanada-style pastries), and bourekas (savory Middle Eastern turnovers) all contain salty cheeses similar to what Holofernes would have eaten, while the cheese blintz and farmhouse cheese pancakes offer a sweet take on tradition.
Whether you are sweet or savory, we wish you a happy and delicious Hanukkah!
Bourekas with cheese
Bourekas are an extremely popular street food that matches the culinary tradition of Hanukkah – and the salty cheese makes them even more authentic. Use store-bought puff pastry to reduce preparation time. After all, why spend all your time in the kitchen when there is a party going on in the rest of the house? In fact, you can prepare and freeze them ahead of time. Just follow the directions at the end of this recipe.
2 sheets of frozen puff pastry
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
1/3 cup ricotta
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon of sesame seeds
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
In a bowl, combine the feta, kashkaval, ricotta, egg and a pinch of black pepper.
Using a fork, mix ingredients until well combined and uniform in texture.
On a lightly floured surface, unfold one of the puff pastry sheets.
With a rolling pin, roll out the foil into a 12 x 12 inch square.
Cut the dough into 9 evenly sized squares, 4 “x4” each.
Place 1 tablespoon of the cheese mixture in the center of each square of dough.
Grab a corner of the square and fold it over the opposite corner to form a triangle.
Crimp along the edges with the tines of a fork.
Repeat this for the second puff pastry.
Line the baking sheets with parchment paper.
Place 9 bourekas on each leaf. They will expand during cooking, so space them out evenly.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolk and 2 teaspoons of cold water. Brush a light layer of gold on top of each boureka.
Sprinkle the bourekas with sesame seeds.
Bake the bourekas for about 30 minutes, alternating the baking sheets between the upper and lower racks halfway through cooking.
Remove when golden and cooked through.
Store in a sealed container.
Prepare the bourekas but do not wash with egg. Place uncooked pastries in a plastic bag or container in a single layer, each separated by a sheet of wax or parchment paper. Freeze.
When ready to cook, take the bourekas out of the freezer and place them on baking sheets coated with non-stick oil.
Brush with a thin layer of gold foil and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
Bake at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes until golden brown.