Get Your Hanukkah Fry On

Menorah candles around the world will burn brightly tomorrow night, kicking off Hanukkah, the Jewish eight-day festival of lights.

In this hemisphere, we need all the light we can get as we inch closer to the darkest, shortest day of the year, aka the winter solstice (Dec. 22). If there's wind and other wintry conditions contributing to the atmosphere (which has been the case over the past few days in various parts of the country), frying up a storm seems like the right thing to do, whether or not you celebrate Hanukkah.

A pan-sized latke, cut into fourths and ready for applesauce. (Kim O'Donnel)

I'm not suggesting that we hop aboard the deep-fried fatty train, but a little fried fun is quite okay every once in a while, particularly when done in small batches at home.

For many, Hanukkah wouldn't be the same without a plate of potato latkes, cute little patties of grated potatoes and onions, mixed with a little egg and crumb-y binder, fried until crisp and served with applesauce (my favorite) or sour cream.

Last night, I made a batch of "batter" and instead of dropping several patties into the oil, I decided to make one big latke as an experiment. I poured my grated potato-onion mix into a hot puddle of oil about 1/4 inch deep, pressing the pancake down to flatten and keep thin. A few things to keep in mind: Unlike the smaller patties, a big latke requires more time, a slightly different rig and a more patient cook. For starters, I recommend a shallow skillet, so that when it comes to invert the latke, you will minimize breakage (although I did mine in a nine-inch cast-iron skillet without a hitch). Yes, you will need to flip the latke, but more importantly, you need to let the latke cook for at least 10 minutes without fussing over it. Yes, you can peek, but go easy, and keep an eye on that flame and adjust if the latke is starting to burning. When the latke appears golden on the first side, place a plate on top of the skillet and then invert, then slide latke onto a baking tray and finish cooking in a 400-degree oven. It will need at least 15 minutes, maybe more.

Many of you have asked if sweet potatoes can be used in place of the olde spud, and the answer is affirmative. Sweet potatoes are wonderful in this dish, and I like to add a smidge of cinnamon to the batter. If you live somewhere within reach of zucchinis, you could try these zucchini "crabcakes", zesty little fritters packed with flavor and seasoning flexibility. Use the above recipe link as a template and have a ball experimenting.

One of my favorite home-fried treats is a batch of pakoras, Indian-style veggie fritters made from a seasoned chickpea batter. These are great fun for a crowd, so if you've got Hanukkah revelers stopping by, everyone can pitch in, frying up a few pakoras to order. Don't forget to make the accompanying green chutney, a little bit of spice heaven on your tongue!

If you've got a little bit of time (or a cooking partner), I highly recommend trying your hand at your own falafel, without the mix. You need 24 hours of soaking time for the dried garbanzos or fava beans, but once they're ready, you can make the falafel batter in advance (it needs an hour to set up in the fridge anyway), and then fry when your guests arrive, who will be duly impressed by how wonderful these little morsels are, particularly if you take a few extra minutes to make your own tahini sauce. What a spread you'll have!

Of course, you can finish the evening off with a batch of sufganiyot, aka jelly doughnuts, or perhaps make these for brunch over the weekend.

After all, you've got eight days to go fry-crazy.

By Kim ODonnel |  December 3, 2007; 9:52 AM ET Jewish Holidays , Winter Holidays
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Wow, Kim, that recipe for pakoras looks amazing! I've been craving them ever since I spent some travelling in India and now I cannot wait to go home and give your recipe a try.

Posted by: Julie | December 3, 2007 11:24 AM

Love your blogs for their food tips, their openness to ideas and the wonderful way you help promote understanding (and peace) among the world's peoples through food traditions. Might be helpful to explain WHY some of these holiday traditions exist or provide a link to an explanation, or ask a reader to chip in.

For instance, I am sure someone can explain better than I can the Hanukkah connection with fried foods like latkes. I vaguely recall a Jewish neighbor years ago telling me that latkes and donuts were important to Hanukkah specifically because they ARE fried. Hanukkah is the festival of lights because it commemorates a miracle when one day's supply of lamp oil for the sanctuary lasted eight days during a siege on a temple. That's not a perfect explanation, but it's close, I think. And it ties the oil for the foods to the oil for the festival. I know other parts of the Hanukkah meal also have symbolism, such as bitter herbs (or is that Passover?) and honey and maybe even the potatoes or whatever. And of course, there are food traditions for the Muslim, Hindu, Christian and other holidays as well. Would be fun to learn more even as we try the foods themselves. Just a thought.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 3, 2007 11:37 AM

Thanks for your thoughtful comments and interest. If you look at link to jelly doughnuts, that post includes some historical context. It's always a challenge to provide the same info in a fresh way and so I appreciate what works/what you'd like to see more/less of.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | December 3, 2007 1:14 PM

Hi Kim,

Just a quick question on the pakoras. Is it necessary to parboil before battering and frying? I would think with the sweet potatoes and regular potatoes that you would. I only ask after eating sweet potato tempura where the sweet potato was very crunchy and as a result not very good.

Posted by: Pakora | December 3, 2007 3:26 PM

One Hanukkah dinner, a friend brought someone who happened to be the son of a donut maker. Fortunately, my donuts passed the test: they didn't sop up much oil at all. The conversation quickly changed and I never learned what gives a donut that quality. The recipe I used was the jelly donut recipe from the Cupcake Cafe Cookbook. One year I didn't have that cookbook with me but was able to get the recipe from the "look inside" feature on Amazon. Suffered extreme eyestrain from the effort, but we had those donuts!

Posted by: Fran | December 3, 2007 3:36 PM

BTW Kim, I think you were a tad, just a tad, unfair to Martha Stewart Living with your "Vegetarian Who?" comment. There were four entree recipes in the mag: vegetable, pork, poultry, and seafood. They seem to treat vegetarian as another meal choice, just not something that needs to be labeled and shouted.

That gingerbread town square "Living" did was quite a piece of food porn. I'll never make it or have it, but I sure enjoyed reading about it.

Posted by: Fran | December 3, 2007 3:58 PM

To 11:37 am:

My Jewish friends always told me that there was a connection between frying foods in oil and the oil used to light the lamps in the Hanukkah story. Moreover, they insist (at least my Ashkanazi friends) that the oil must be olive. Too bad. The smoke point of grapeseed oil is higher, making for a faster, less greasy fry.

I have no idea of purists insist on using olive oil for the doughnuts, although I note that Nigella Lawson's recipe simply calls for "vegetable oil."

I like to vary the onion product in my potato pancakes-- onions/shallots/leeks, whatever I have lying around. Also, don't forget other rooty veggies-- rutabagas, turnips, parsnips and carrots work too.

Posted by: Silver Spring | December 3, 2007 6:02 PM

I hadn't heard of latkes before but know pakoras very well and love them. I'll have to give the former a try! Thanks for the recommendation.

Posted by: Vegameatarian | December 3, 2007 10:20 PM

Yes, bitter herbs are for Passover.

Hanukkah is all about the oil. I just read somewhere that it's not a potato holiday, it's an oil holiday, which made me LOL.

Also known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah is actually the only Jewish holiday not born from religious tradition (Torah), but rather historical.

I know I can't wait for latkes (I'll do potato, try sweet potato, then carrot/green onion/parsnip for fun!), homemade applesauce and all the fixin's.

Darn - gotta eat jelly donuts, too!


Posted by: Germantown | December 3, 2007 10:52 PM

Looks like I'm the first Jew to chime in. For the record:

1. The frying is indeed the crux of the tradition. The Hannukah story revolves around the miracle that after the Temple was pillaged by ... I forget whom. The Romans, maybe? Anyway, it looked like there was only enough oil to light the lamps for one night, but somehow it lasted for 8 nights. Hence the length of the holiday.

The word "Hannukah" comes from the Hebrew word "dedication," for when the Temple was cleaned and re-dedicated after the pillaging.

As for whether olive oil is important ... as far as I know, that's not necessarily true. But for a long time that's all we had here in Israel.

2. Here in Israel, the traditional food is the sufganiyah, the jelly donut. Only American expats do latkes (which in Hebrew are called "levivot").

3. Gift-giving is also an American thing only. We give gifts on Rosh Hashana and Passover.

4. Germantown, hate to nitpick, but there are several holidays that don't come from the Torah -- Purim, for one, and Tisha B'Av.

Anyway, thought the posters might appreciate the info. Love your blog, Kim, even from all the way over here.

Posted by: Fan in Israel | December 4, 2007 2:34 AM

Thank you Israel for sharing your tidbits from the other side of the world. Most appreciated!

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | December 4, 2007 7:13 AM

Fan in Israel -

So where's the authentic sufganiyah recipe?!

Yes, you were the first from Israel to post, but not the first Jew (smile).

I was tired while posting last night, but yes, thank you for posting the other non-Torah holidays. I kinda figured, though, that most non-Jews have never heard of Purim or even if they have, certainly not Tisha B'Av.

Happy Chanukah!

Posted by: Germantown | December 4, 2007 9:40 AM

My mom does her latkes without the egg and with much less flour- I really like them better than the traditional kind. They are very, very thin- mostly just fried potato and onion with a little flour as a binder and some salt & pepper.

You can also use bean flour as a substitute for the regular flour if someone can't have wheat, and the taste is really exactly the same.

Posted by: reston, va | December 4, 2007 11:49 AM

Just wanted to thank Reston for the comment about the bean flour. I can't eat wheat so I was trying to decide if it would be ok to subsitute my chickpea flour, but after reading the comment I think I'll give it a try tonight!

Posted by: Baltimore | December 4, 2007 12:43 PM

Instead of donuts, this year I'm frying "cloud puffs" from Jacques Torres's "Dessert Circus at Home". They're simply pate a choux piped into the hot oil using a chopstick laid or held across the pot to break the pieces off as they're piped. Incredibly delicious.

Posted by: Fran | December 4, 2007 1:25 PM

Every year my dad creates a new latke recipe based on something that has happened in the family over the last year. If one of the kids went to study abroad, he found a way to incorporate that country or regions cusine into a latke. His recipes include sweet potato, spicy southwest, hawaiian, cuban, italian and onion. Some recipes work out well, some find themselves never to be made again (like the vanilla toasted almond!). Either way its always fun and exciting to try something new for the holiday.

Happy Hannuakah!!

Posted by: Jill | December 4, 2007 1:46 PM

I've done the jelly donuts before and they are a big hit. But do they sit well overnight? I have a brunch coming up and I don't want to be frying them with 50 people in my house.

Posted by: Jessica | December 4, 2007 4:01 PM

Germantown --
To you as well. I must admit that my sufganiya recipe involves the grocery store bakery counter. They aren't hard to make, just time consuming, but last year when my husband tried to make them he was hampered by a shoddy jelly syringe that had to be jury-rigged to push any jelly into the donut ... the moral of the story being, if you're going to make them, invest in a decent syringe.

Posted by: Fan in Israel | December 9, 2007 3:18 AM

Ionce taught "food art" in a pre-school. One of the teachers who was an old hand told me that she makes her latkes with frozen shredded potatoes. They worked like a charm and I've made them like that ever since. Thanks Miss Kathy!

Posted by: | December 12, 2007 1:05 PM

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