Saturday, December 26, 2009

Happy Hanukkah!

Meet Dan and Gwen. Dan is a local lad; Waipawa born and raised, he's the former owner of a ferocious looking beard, is very well travelled, and in the course of his journeys, met Gwen. Gwen is an American (from Seattle), Jewish and has seen more of this great planet than compatriot Sarah Palin is ever likely to. We were talking at work one day about December and Christmas, when she mentioned that the season for her is experienced a little differently than your average kiwi.

For Jewish people, late November through to December is Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights. Celebrated over eight days, Hanukkah is the celebration of the overturning of the Syrian leadership in Judea in 165 BCE. Under Syrian rule, the practise of Judaism had been outlawed. A key event in this succesful rebellion was the re-taking of Jerusalem and its Temple, the principal place of worship for Jewish people. After the fighting, the Temple was cleansed and blessed and despite there being only enough oil for a days lighting, the temple miraculously stayed lit for eight days. Hanukkah is observed in the home in a number of ways, such as the lighting of the menorah (a nine-branched candelabrum), the exchanging of gifts, and most importantly, the devouring of an array of tasty dishes.

Fried foods feature prominently during the holiday, in commemoration of the role oil played in the temple at the time after the rebellion. Gwen very kindly invited me round to watch her cook, and the afternoon quickly turned into equal parts cookery, history and cultural lessons. A lot of this food isn't necessarily restricted to being consumed during Hanukkah and is often enjoyed all year round. Some of it takes on special significance during other Jewish festivals or ceremonies, such as Passover. On to the food - let's start with...


Latkes are pancakes made of grated potato and onion, bound with egg and deep-fried in oil. They're best enjoyed straight out of the frying pan!
  • 10 medium potatoes
  • 3 medium onions
  • 3 lightly beaten eggs
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • vegetable oil
  • salt & pepper
Wash and peel your potatoes. You need to grate the spuds, so run them through the grater attachment on your food processor or grate by hand. Do the same with your onions.

Now, the potato and onions
hold a considerable amount of liquid. This needs to be removed, otherwise placing the latkes in the hot oil will cause it to spatter wildly and overflow. Squeeze handfuls of the grated potato and onion to remove as much liquid from them as possible - you'll be surprised at how much there is (if you're doing a large batch, using a tea towel will save you lots of time; place the mix in the centre of the towel, gather it up and wring the bejesus out of it).

Welcome to the gun show, baby! Squeeeeze!

Add flour, eggs, salt (lots) and pepper to the mix and combine. Turn the oven on to a low heat (150c). Pour oil into your pan and bring to 180c or until you see a faint blue haze hovering over the surface. Grab a handful of the mix and again, wring out as much liquid as possible. Place the latke on your slotted spoon and ease into the hot oil. Depending on the size of your pan, place no more than 4 or 5 latkes in the oil; if you crowd the pan, you run the risk of the temperature dropping and the latkes becoming greasy as they take longer to cook.

Once the edges look brown and crispy, turn the latke; the surface should be nice and brown. Once the other side is done, remove from the pan and place on a paper towel to drain, then place on a tray and keep warm in the oven, although they taste at their absolute best piping hot straight out of the pan. Serve on their own or topped with sour cream or apple sauce.

Matzo Balls
(Makes 20)

Matzo balls are a tasty dumpling traditionally eaten with chicken soup.

  • 4 tbsp chicken stock
  • 4 tbsp chicken fat or melted butter
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ginger
  • 2 tbsp grated onion
  • 2 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
  • a shake of paprika
  • 1 cup of matzo meal*
  • 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
*not commonly seen on supermarket shelves in NZ, I've seen it at deli's and health food stores. It's made from matzo, an unleavened bread, much like a cracker. Matzo plays a significant role in Jewish life. Freed from slavery, but forced to leave ancient Egypt in haste, there was no time for Jewish folk to allow their baked bread to rise so the resultant flat bread formed part of the meagre rations taken with them on their exodus. Matzo is ground into a very fine crumb to form matzo meal.

Place a large pot (a stock pot is ideal) of water on to boil - throw in a tablespoon of salt. Place all ingredients in a bowl (except the eggs), and mix. Stir in one egg at a time until combined. The mix will look sticky, but that's perfectly okay. Refrigerate for at least an hour in the fridge; overnight would be even better, just to help develop the flavour.

Remove mix from the fridge. Wet your hands and roll into slightly-smaller-than-golf-ball-size balls. By the way, wetting your hands frequently during this stage stops the mix from sticking to your fingers and helps in shaping the matzo ball - handy tip there for working with meatballs and so on, too.

Time to cook the matzo balls. The water should be at a rolling boil; drop them in, one at a time and try not to crowd the pot, otherwise they'll stick together. Bring back to the boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cooking time depends on the size of the balls but generally speaking, once they float to the top, they're done - around 30 minutes or so. They'll also have increased in size by at least a third. We tested one by pulling it out and halving it - it should be light and fluffy; if it appears dense, leave them in the pot a tad longer.

To serve, place two or three matzo balls in a bowl of chicken soup per person and garnish with a little extra parsley. They have a surprisingly meaty flavour and are quite filling.


Haroset is a symbolic food made up of fruit and nuts and sweet wine. Its colour and texture are meant to recall the mortar with which the Jews bonded bricks when constructing the temples and pyramids while slaves in ancient Egypt.
  • 6 sweet apples (such as Fuji or Red Delicious)
  • 2/3 cup almonds
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp cinammon
  • 1 lemon
  • 4 tbsp sweet red wine (Manischewitz if you can get your hands on it, otherwise use what you can)

Peel, core and roughly chop your apples, then place in a large bowl. Chop your almonds, zest your lemon and add to the bowl along with the sugar and cinammon.

Add your wine (we used a left
over bottle of White Cliff pinot noir - not strictly speaking a sweet wine but it had to be used up - the key is not to use a dry red). Stir to combine, taste and if necessary, add more wine. Cover and then pop into the fridge to allow the apples to absorb the various flavours - the longer it's left in the fridge, the darker the fruit will become as it soaks up the wine, and consequently, becomes more flavoursome.

To eat, spoon some haroset onto a piece of matzo.


By the way, Gwen's appeared in the blog before, giving me a recipe for an American culinary classic. A big thank you to Gwen and Dan for sharing their time and food with me - it was quite an education and greatly appreciated. They've since left for India to continue their travels, so all the very best to them and may they have the grandest adventures imaginable!

No comments: