With Hanukkah beginning at sundown tonight, Judy Bart Kancigor, author of Cooking Jewish, shares some of her favorite holiday memories and recipes for a Hanukkah feast including latkes, dipping sauce, and a delicious cherry chicken.
Hanukkah comes early this year. You know what they say about the Jewish holidays – they’re always early or late. They’re never on time!
When my boys were young, I used to hate it when Hanukkah came early. By the time Christmas rolled around, all their toys were already broken. Oh, the joys of the Hebrew lunar calendar. Only once, to my memory, did Hanukkah fall after Christmas. That year I saved all my Hanukkah shopping for the day after Christmas sales. (Talk about a leap of faith!)
As we light the candles, I can’t help but remember the Hanukkahs of my youth. My mother’s family was very close, and we cousins (13 of us) were raised together practically as siblings. Remember the movie Avalon? That was our childhood (without the fire, of course!) There were so many of us Papa Harry even put a board in the children’s table.
The highlight, of course, was our Hanukkah party. The pile of latkes! The mountain of presents! The noise! The excitement! The squabbles! Then when we cousins started producing the great-grandchildren, Aunt Sally’s basement bulged with our bounty. (No one ever thought of drawing names for a gift exchange back then!)
When we moved to California from New York, our boys were six and four. Away from our roots, our friends became our extended family, and our neighbors only too eager to share our traditions. On the first night of Hanukkah I would make my signature latkes, those crispy, irresistible potato pancakes, and set them on doily-lined Hanukkah paper plates for my boys to distribute up and down the block.
I have noticed through the years, however, that a snobbery has developed among latke aficionados, who view with disdain from their lofty perch those who use a blender to process the potatoes. Their mantra? Shredded is better. “Oh, no,” they tsk-tsk when they see my recipe, just a touch of feigned sympathy in their eyes. “I use the food processor. I like texture.”
Texture? You want texture? I’ll give you texture. Use my SPLAT! method and you’ll get all the texture you want with these babies. My family hovers over the pan to fight over the thinnest ones that are so crunchy and full of holes you can practically see through them, so turn down your decibel meter.
Now for the real secret of my very crispy latkes. Heat the oil until very hot, but not smoking. (I use canola.) Scoop some batter with a large spoon, hold the spoon about eight inches above the pan and spill all at once. SPLAT! Remove your hand quickly so you don’t burn yourself. (It’s all in the wrist.) The pancake will splatter, forming holes, the better to hold the sour cream or applesauce. Keeping the temperature of the oil constant is key, so don’t crowd the pan. Allow the temperature to go down and you risk soggy latkes.
If you want to prepare the batter up to a day ahead, here’s a trick taught to me years ago by my friend, Elaine Asa. Prepare the batter without adding the flour, and pour the mixture into a tight-fitting glass jar. (Do not use plastic ware.) Tap the jar on the counter to release any air bubbles, cover the batter well with a thick layer of flour, and refrigerate up to 24 hours. When ready to cook, remove the flour layer with the black ring that has formed beneath it. Then add the flour, stir and fry.
For a change of pace, serve the latkes with a dipping sauce made from Aunt Hilda’s Cherry Chili Chicken, her decades-old signature dish, eagerly anticipated by all (although she just called it “Holiday Chicken.” I always was a sucker for alliteration.) Sweet yet zippy, pretty plump cherries dotting the dish, Aunt Hilda’s Holiday Chicken ushered in countless New Years, heralded scores of birthdays and graced many a holiday table.
Not serving chicken this year? I’ve included a recipe below for the dipping sauce minus the bird. Happy Hanukkah to all!!
Click here for recipes fit for a Hanukkah feast