Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, begins at sundown today, December 16, 2014, and continues for the next eight days. On the Jewish calendar, it’s the 25th of Kislev, but it can occur from late November to late December on the modern civil calendar. It is traditionally observed by lighting one candle each evening for placement in a special nine-branched candelabrum, and by a time of family togetherness, good food — particularly fried foods and sweets — by games and songs, and by the exchange of small gifts.
Hanukkah commemorates the victory of the freedom-fighting Maccabees over Antiochus in the second century BCE, and the retaking of the Temple in Jerusalem. The victors found only a limited supply of oil to rekindle the eternal light. It, however, burned for eight days, until more oil arrived, and is considered a miracle. Traditions observed to this day are meant to recall the miracle. Hanukkah does, of course, include a serious message, and prayers are offered; but it is a fun, lighthearted celebration, a time of celebration, and definitely a time to indulge in good food and fun.
Watch this lively video and listen to some special Hanukkah music!
Including, of course, the foods fried in oil! One of the most popular treats, invariably served the first night of Hanukkah and perhaps several times during the extended celebration, is a form of potato cake, served with either sour cream or applesauce, or both. There’s no doubt about it — potato latkes are great! But even ardent traditionalists can occasionally be tempted by something different. If you’re hosting the extended family during Hanukkah, or if you’ve been tapped to bring something to a larger gathering, this recipe for salmon-topped latke appetizers will fill the bill nicely. The taste is the same; the look is elegant, and the small size and fresh flavor of the appetizers will captivate the crowd. Be sure to make plenty!
You could continue the “small bites” theme rather than preparing a sit down dinner, especially if you’re expecting a large number of people. Intersperse some easy to prepare vegetarian dishes with sliced brisket, or herbed chicken fingers, or perhaps serve a variation of salmon or fish “sliders” on small rolls with oven roasted root vegetables drizzled with honey if you’re expecting lots of youngsters.
Cheese dishes are also popular during Hanukkah. And this recipe for Cheese and Scallion Knishes is always a crowd pleaser. You’ll also want to bookmark it for frequent use throughout the year.
Sweets are another typical indulgence during Hanukkah festivities — sometimes jelly-filled doughnuts, sometimes cream-filled blintzes, and sometimes chocolate concoctions. Hanukkah gelt, the foil wrapped chocolate “coins” that are children’s favorites, actually began as seasonal “tips” for neighborhoods merchants – the butcher, the baker, anyone who performed special services during the year, much like the seasonal gifts today reserved for the mechanic, the postman and the newspaper carrier.
The gift of something sweet has continued, but shifted from gelt (or coins) to taste treats. But, why not supply the sweetness in a lighter form this year? Think about baked pears stuffed with a honey-glazed nut mixture and topped with cinnamon and other aromatic spices. Serve them warm or cold; add a little yogurt on top if you wish. Even the children will approve — they’re unusual and delicious, and good for you! Make extra so you can enjoy one for breakfast!