Tonight is the 5th night of Hanukkah and those who are celebrating are likely to enjoy latkes with their holiday meal. Latkes have been a Hanukkah tradition for European Jews since the Middle Ages. The tradition of eating foods cooked in oil reminds Jews of the miracle of the oil associated with Hanukkah.
According to the legend, in 164 BCE, after Judah Maccabee and his followers conquered the Syrian Greek King who was trying to impose Greek customs and religion on the people of Israel, they needed ritual oil to re-sanctify the temple. The miracle of Hanukkah, which means “dedication,” is that the small supply oil was expected to last only one day, but actually lasted eight days…and so does our current day celebration, explained Jewish food historian Jayne Cohen, a Jewish food historian and cookbook writer who spoke with CBS News reporter Martha Teichner in a recent segment on Hanukkah.
But how pancakes became part of the tradition is less clear. According to Cohen, in the CBS stoy, it’s connected to an early Middle Ages heroine, Judith, a beautiful widow, who set out to seduce Holofernes, an Assyrian general who was holding her town of Bethulia under siege. Using pancakes (levivot) filled with a salty cheese, Holofernes became so thirsty he drank incredible quantities of wine, until he passed out – at which point Judith chopped off his head. By the Middle Ages, Cohen said, Italian Jews were eating cheese pancakes for Hanukkah. Cohen theorized the potatoes eventually became part of the tradition because they were cheap and plentiful.
Contemporary cooks are free to experiment with other vegetables like zucchini, beets, even spaghetti squash in their latkes. Photos below illustrate a latke recipe and cooking process this writer has developed using a food processor and an electric frying pan for ease and convenience. The recipe is simple, but the secret is to make sure the ingredients are as dry as possible so the pancakes get crispy without absorbing too much oil. I like using an electric frying pan because you aren’t tied to the kitchen. You can make the latkes whereever your Hanukkah party is, and the latkes will always be hot.