The Jewish palate: Lesser known Hanukka traditions

A new column about Jewish history and Jewish food: Who's yehudit and why do we eat dairy on Hanukka?

December 6, 2010 16:08
3 minute read.
 ’Faye Levy’s International Jewish Cookbook’

Latkes 311. (photo credit: DeGennaro Studios/ ’Faye Levy’s International Jewi)

Hanukka, the eight-day festival of light and freedom, is also a culinary delight; to celebrate the miracle of the oil, Jews all over the world commemorate the victory of Judah Maccabee with a grand array of fried delicacies.

The most popular and best known of these fried delights are the Ashkenazi potato latka or latke, and the Israeli/Polish Sufganiot/Pontshkes (Jelly doughnut). Thin and crispy, with a moist, creamy center, latkes are for some an obsession; and I have not met a jelly doughnut that I haven’t liked. But, I have to admit that eating latkes and/or doughnuts every night for eight nights can get a little boring.

As the holiday progresses, I like to find delicious fried tidbits from other cultures or lesser known traditions.  One of my favorite alternatives is to enjoy a dairy meal as done by many Sephardic families.

The eating of dairy foods, especially cheese, on Hanukka is a lesser known custom that was inspired by the events in the Book of Judith. The Book of Judith tells of Holofernes, an Assyrian general that laid siege the town of Bethulia during an attempt to conquer Judea.

Judith, a righteous widow, told the village leaders that she had a plan to save the Jews. Judith went to the Assyrian camp and pretended to surrender. The General, Holofernes, found Judith’s beauty to be irresistible and he took her back to his tent. Judith pretended to be taken by Holofernes as well, and began to feed him salty cheese. The cheese made Holofernes extremely thirsty, so she began to ply him with wine. Holofernes became so intoxicated that he passed out. When he was unconscious, Judith took his sword and beheaded him.  When the Assyrian troops found the decapitated corpse, they fled and The village was saved.

And how does Hanukka relate to this story? There is a longstanding Jewish tradition that Judith was an aunt of Judah the Maccabee.

To commemorate this great victory there are many great Sephardic and, to a lesser extent Ashkenazi, Hanukka recipes that utilize cheese. One of my favorites is the Sephardic Bimuelo, or fritter. These can be made in a variety of styles, but for Hanukka, cheese bimuelos are on the menu. They are crispy, salty, and honey sweet – a perfect alternative to the latke rut.

Bimuelos de Queso

Makes about 24 Bimuelos

  •      2 cups drained farmer's cheese, quark, or ricotta cheese
  •      ½  cup cornstarch or flour
  •      1 ½  tablespoons light brown sugar
  •      1/2 teaspoon salt
  •      1 egg
  •      Vegetable oil or olive oil for frying
  •      Honey for drizzling

   1. To drain the cheese, place in a fine mesh strainer over a bowl and allow to drain in the refrigerator for 4 hours.  Discard liquid.
   2. Mix the cheese, corn starch, sugar, salt, and egg in a large bowl until well blended.
   3. Shape the dough into 1 inch diameter balls.  If the dough is too loose, add more cornstarch or flour until workable.
   4. Heat several inches of oil in a heavy pot to 350 degrees.
   5. Add the bimuelos, a few at a time, and cook. Cook for 3-4 minutes, turning them occasionally, until they are golden brown and very round.
   6. Drain on a plate lined with paper towels.
   7.   Arrange on a serving plate and drizzle with honey. Serve warm.

Dennis Wasko has been a Professional Chef for 12 years and is the author of New Israeli Cuisine,, and Beyond The Kitchen Wall

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