Hanukkah foods: not just latkes!

By Tina Wasserman

Hanukkah is earlier this year and the Thanksgiving dishes aren’t even dry yet. I know you can order your gifts by mail to those you love but the celebration this year might be limited to two or three people and Zoom. Those on Zoom can’t smell your delicious latkes frying but we still need to keep culinary traditions alive in our own households, calories be damned!

I realized that I have not given you my foolproof recipe for white, crunchy potato latkes so I am including it here. But, of course, I am offering a little twist. If you like, you can add the entire mixture to a hot, well-oiled, ovenproof skillet or better yet, a cast-iron pan, fry on one side and continue cooking in a hot oven. This is often called a Potato Nik by relatives in the Northeast.

In addition to the classics, I am offering you an alternative to sufganiot, the Israeli equivalent of a jelly doughnut whose tradition was created in the 1920s in order to keep grain workers, bakers and shopkeepers busy with work during lean times. People in the Cuban-Jewish community often make churros, exemplifying fried foods, representing the story of the oil lasting for eight days. 

Chicken lightly fried and coated with a honey/garlic sauce is good any time of year and my delicious chocolate truffles can be pressed into little foil packets to resemble the chocolate gelt coins. This is an enjoyable activity you can do with your children or grandchildren if you can be safely with them.

Another holiday impacted negatively by the pandemic — but not on the culinary front 

Latkes-Potato Pancakes

Many years ago, I was making latkes in my daughter’s Sunday School classroom while others were doing the same in their child’s class. People started to come in to see my latkes because they heard that they weren’t gray/black, thin and watery. My recipe is below with step-by-step instructions to prevent all of the above problems.

One Tidbit I can’t save for last is this: I never use russet potatoes! Russets have too much starch and thick skins. When you use white or Yukon Gold potatoes there is NO NEED TO PEEL. If that doesn’t make you switch your potato choice, I don’t know what would!

Although latkes are a perfect accompaniment to beef or chicken, they can also be made into small rounds and topped with sour cream and caviar for an elegant appetizer.

6-8 large thin skinned potatoes, California long whites or Yukon Gold, about 3 pounds

3 eggs, beaten well

1½ tablespoons Kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

2 medium-large onions (¾ to 1 pound total), cut into 8 pieces 

1 cup matzo meal or cracker meal

Oil for frying 

Applesauce, sour cream or caviar for garnish, optional

1. Grate the raw potatoes using the grating disk on a processor or the largest holes on a grater, if doing it by hand. Place grated potato in a strainer, rinse thoroughly with cold water and drain while you grate onion.

2. Combine eggs, salt and pepper in a 4-quart bowl. Mix thoroughly and set aside.

3. Change to the cutting blade on your processor. Add onions to the work bowl. Pulse on and off 5 times. Add ⅓ of the grated potatoes to the onion and pulse on and off to make a coarse paste. Add to the egg mixture along with the matzo meal and stir to combine.

4. Add the remaining drained potatoes to the bowl and mix thoroughly using a large spoon or your hands.

5. Heat a large frying pan or large skillet for 20 seconds. Add enough oil to cover the pan to a depth of ¼ inch and heat for an additional 20 seconds. Drop mounds of potato mixture into the pan. Fry on both sides until golden. Drain fried latkes on a platter covered with crumpled paper towels. Serve with applesauce and sour cream if desired.

Tina’s Tidbits: 

1. Grated potatoes turn black when exposed to air. Rinsing the potatoes under running water washes away excess starch and the discoloring culprit. 

2. Always grate your potatoes separately from your onions; that way you won’t lose any of the flavorful juice when you drain the potatoes.

3. Use an ice cream scoop to get perfectly round latkes. A smaller scoop is perfect for appetizer-sized latkes.

4. The best way to drain fried foods is on a plate covered with crumpled paper towels. Crumpling gives more surface area for absorption.

For Potatonik: 

• Heat a 10-inch cast-iron skillet or heavy, ovenproof skillet for 15 seconds. Add enough oil to a depth of ½ inch. Heat for 20 seconds. 

• Pour half of the potato mixture into the pan and cook until the bottom is dark, golden brown. Carefully slide the large pancake onto a plate and then cover it with another plate. Carefully flip the pancake over, making sure that you are wearing potholder gloves in case some of the oil drips. 

• Slide pancake back into the pan and either continue cooking on the stove top for 15 minutes until the mixture is cooked through or place in a preheated 400-degree oven for 15 minutes until the Potatonik is cooked through, the bottom is golden brown and top isn’t too dark. Cut into wedges and serve with sour cream or applesauce.

Crunchy Honey Garlic Chicken

A while ago I came upon a recipe for chicken breasts and I thought it would be even better for Hanukkah made with Pargiot (dark, boneless thigh meat popular in Israel). It is delicious and easy and everyone in the family will love it. Obviously, you can double the recipe for a large crowd but I didn’t think that would (or should) be happening this year. Enjoy!

1½ pounds boneless chicken thighs

1 cup flour

1 heaping teaspoon kosher salt

25 grindings of black pepper or 1 teaspoon ground

2 teaspoons freeze-dried thyme

1½ teaspoons sweet Hungarian paprika

¼ to ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 large egg

¼ cup water

Vegetable oil (I prefer grapeseed, peanut or corn oil)

1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil

3 cloves minced garlic or 3 pods of frozen garlic puree (see note)

¼ cup clover or wildflower honey

2 tablespoons soy sauce (preferably low-sodium)

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place a wire rack inside a 16×11 rimmed baking sheet or use the broiling pan with its base that probably came with your oven (and you probably put it in the back of your cabinet!).

2. Cut the chicken thighs into pieces. No problem if the pieces are different sizes and shapes.

3. Combine the flour, salt, pepper, thyme, paprika and cayenne pepper in a low-sided bowl or plate.

4. In another bowl, use a fork to beat the egg and water together.

5. Heat the oil in a heavy frying pan to a depth of ¾ inch (about 1¼ cups depending on size of your frying pan) until it shimmers but does not smoke.

6. Dip the chicken pieces in the flour mixture, then in the egg mixture, then back in the flour mixture. Shake off any excess flour. Place on a plate or rack until all the chicken pieces are coated.

7. Add 13 to ½ of all the coated chicken to the heated oil. Cook for about 2-3 minutes on each side until the pieces are dark golden brown. Transfer to the wire rack in the baking sheet and proceed to cook the remainder of the chicken pieces.

8. Meanwhile, place the teaspoon of oil in an 8-ounce glass bowl. Heat in a microwave oven for 20 seconds. Add the garlic to the oil and heat for 30 seconds or until the garlic aroma is fragrant. Do not burn the garlic or the flavor of the sauce will be ruined.

9. Add the honey and soy sauce to the garlic and stir well to combine.

10. Drizzle the sauce over each side of the cooked chicken pieces and immediately place in the preheated oven. Bake for 5-8 minutes to heat through. Serve hot although it’s OK at room temperature as well.

Tina’s Tidbits:

• If you live near a Trader Joe’s or Jewish supermarket, look for the Dorot frozen garlic in the little red tray. Each cube is equivalent to 1 clove of garlic and it really is convenient to use.

• If you really want the chicken pieces to be very crisp, serve the sauce as a dipping sauce and don’t coat the chicken before baking.

• Always dip the food to be coated in the dry ingredients first and then the moist ingredients. The dry sticks to the moist food and the liquid sticks to the dry. When the coated food is fried, the egg immediately sets and the coating stays on the food rather than sliding off into the pan. 

Cuban Fried Churros

Peanut, grapeseed or corn oil for frying

2/3 cup water

2 tablespoons sugar

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

½ stick unsalted butter

1 cup minus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3 large eggs

1 tablespoon orange liqueur or vanilla extract

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ cup sugar mixed with 1 tablespoon cinnamon for coating

1. Combine the water, sugar, salt and butter in a 2-quart saucepan. Bring mixture to a boil, stirring with a wooden spoon.

2. Remove pan from the heat and immediately add the flour. Stir rapidly until a ball of dough forms.

3. Using a handheld electric mixer, add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the liquid flavoring and nutmeg and beat for one minute more. The finished mixture will look like a thick paste.

4. Although the paste can be fried right away, traditionally the dough is refrigerated until cold, which is great for preparing in advance and then frying just before or while your guests arrive.

5. Heat the oil in an electric frying pan, a wok or a deep-fat fryer to a depth of 1½ inches. Temperature should be set at 370 degrees or tested with a frying thermometer. Do not let oil smoke. 

6. Place dough in a pastry bag that is fitted with a #7 star tip. 

7. When ready to fry, squeeze out a 4- to 6-inch line of dough and, using a sharp knife, cut the dough at the tip, gently allowing it to slide into the oil.

8. Fry on all sides for about 4-5 minutes until a dark golden brown. These shouldn’t be undercooked. Drain on crunched-up paper towels and, while still hot, roll in the cinnamon and sugar. Serve immediately.

Yield: about 10 churros.

Tina’s Tidbits:

• These are similar to Mexican Churros but are much lighter because they are essentially using a form of Pâte à Choux or cream puff paste. This technique shows more of the European influence on Cuban cuisine.

• If you don’t have a pastry bag, fill a plastic bag with dough, cut out a small corner of the bag and then squeeze your dough through that. The tubes of dough won’t have ridges but they will still be delicious.

• Minus the above equipment, dough can be dropped from an oiled cookie/ice cream scoop and fried into balls. These balls could then be filled with jelly, custard or even ice cream.

Although the connection of coins to Hanukkah celebrations is traced back to the Hasmoneans minting their own state’s coin after their victory, giving children money and then subsequently chocolate coins is a decidedly European tradition whose origins are probably in the late 18th and early 19th century. Jews figured prominently in chocolate manufacturing in Europe at that time and creating coins of chocolate would allow even poor children to participate in the growing tradition of giving “gelt” to children at Hanukkah. These chocolate morsels are as rich as any to be found in Europe then or now. Wrapped in malleable gold foil or aluminum foil, they can be flattened to look like a coin or just covered in foil in the shape of a ball to evoke the coins.

Homemade Chocolate Truffle ‘Gelt’

6 ounces chocolate, dark, milk or white

¼ cup sweet, unsalted butter

2 egg yolks

1 tablespoon coffee liqueur, cognac or Grand Marnier

Dried, sweetened cherries, cranberries or raisins


Gold foil paper

1. Place the chocolate in a 1-quart bowl. Place the bowl in a 1-quart saucepan filled with hot but not boiling water. Over low heat, melt the chocolate and stir to remove any lumps.

2. Remove the bowl of chocolate from the hot water bath.

3. Cut the butter into 4 pieces and gradually whisk in the butter one piece at a time until all the butter is incorporated.

4. Whisk in the yolks until thoroughly combined. The mixture may look grainy and separated, but don’t worry. Then, whisk in the cognac or other flavoring.

5. Cover and refrigerate for an hour or until the mixture is firm but not rock-hard.

6. Working quickly, so that your hands do not melt the truffles, place a heaping teaspoon of chocolate in your hand. Press a dried cherry (or other fruit) into the center of the chocolate and then shape into a rough ball about ¾ inch in diameter, completely encasing the fruit. Handle the chocolate as little as possible to prevent melting.

7. Roll the truffle in cocoa using only your fingertips. Place on a plastic-wrap-lined plate and refrigerate until firm.

8. Wrap the truffles in gold foil or aluminum foil to resemble coins or place in little paper petit-fours cups and refrigerate covered until ready to serve. 

Tina’s Tidbits:

• Although this recipe can be made with white, milk or dark chocolate, I strongly recommend using the dark chocolate for the gelt as they will stay hardened longer.

• Milk chocolate needs to be refrigerated to really keep its shape and using a shallow candy mold with a design would work well. (I once made 280 pieces of smiley face coins for my daughter’s bat mitzvah and then forgot to bring them…Oy!)

• White chocolate (which isn’t truly chocolate since it is made from only the butter of the cacao bean rather than the chocolate liquor which has the flavor) is very delicious but soft at room temperature. I would freeze the balls of dough and then dip them in melted coating chocolate, which will stay firm and encapsulate the white truffle.

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