The tradition of eating cheese on Hanukka pre-dates latkes, doughnuts and other more modern traditions.
The story is the stuff of a Hollywood drama. Judith, a beautiful Jewish woman fed salty cheese to the Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians general Holofernes. The cheese made him thirsty and he drank too much wine which caused him to fall into a drunken sleep. Judith cut off his head and the Israelis rallied and attacked the Assyrian armies who then fled.
One version of the story specifies that the cheese was cooked into a pancake. By the 14th century, there was quite a strong tradition that people eat cheese on Hanukka and it’s associated with Judith giving cheese to the enemy to make him drunk.
A commentary from that time, by Rabbi Moses Isserles, on the Shulchran Arach, the Jewish Code of Law, even recommends eating cheese on the holiday in honor of Judith.
The latke that we know today is actually a modern recipe. The potato, after all, didn't come to Europe until well after Columbus came to America. Potato latkes were a 19th-century invention. The tradition of eating cakes made from cheese on Hanukka died out when European Jews cooked in schmaltz.
Eating cheese during Hanukka is a very old tradition that still continues today. Many people have forgotten why we eat dairy products. Here is a delicious recipe that honors Judith and her bravery.
Feta Cheese and Potato Fritters
1 large russet potato, shredded (squeeze the potato in a towel to get all the moisture out of it)
2 medium zucchini, shredded and dried (squeeze the shredded zucchini in a towel to get all the water out of it)
1 whole egg plus 1 yolk
1 small onion, diced
¼ cup fresh mint, cut into chiffonade (thin ribbons)
230 grams feta cheese, crumbled and put into the freezer for 30 minutes
½ cup panko style breadcrumbs
Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper
Olive oil for frying
1. Mix together the shredded potato, zucchini, egg, onion, mint leaves, feta cheese, and bread crumbs to make a mixture that holds together when pressed lightly.
2. Form the zucchini mixture into small patties.
3. Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Pan-fry the patties until golden brown, three to five minutes per side. Drain the patties on paper towels; serve hot.
Chef Laura Frankel is Executive Chef for Spertus Kosher Catering and author of Jewish Cooking for All Seasons, and Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes.