Yes, yes, everyone knows Hanukkah means latkes and doughnuts. But for my family it also means cheese. That’s because of the story of Judith, daughter of Yochanan the high priest, aunt of the Maccabees. Though most of us know the tale of the great Maccabee victory and the oil that miraculously burned for eight days, somehow, this valiant woman’s story is often overlooked.
So here it is: Judith visited Holofernes, the enemy general, on the pretext of asking for protection. She was so beautiful that he asked her to dine with him, which she did, and she made sure he ate plenty of cheese. The cheese gave him such a powerful thirst that he drank too much wine and fell asleep. Judith cut off his head with his own sword and ran to tell the men when to strike, assuring their victory.
It sounds grisly, I know, but when you have two daughters, as I do, it’s important to underscore how and when women have made their mark, even when the world held them back. My daughters, and now my granddaughters (and grandsons) hear the Judith story every year as we light the menorah.
In the early days, Hanukkah celebrations included both cheese and fried foods. But in the northern countries like Russia and Poland, where so many Jews were poor, few people could afford cheese. So when they prepared the traditional latkes they substituted shredded potatoes for the cheese. The rest, as the sage says, is commentary.
Both potato latkes and cheese latkes are a Hanukkah must at our house. We eat a vegetarian dinner that night, which might also include Eggplant, Mushroom and Tomato Gratin or Spinach Pie (there’s a recipe in my book, Hip Kosher). Dessert: maybe a cheesecake or cheese strudel, but I often cook something au courant, like Baked Goat Cheese with Cranberries and Honey. It’s a full smile meal.
Lemon-Cottage Cheese Pancakes (from Hip Kosher)
1-1/3 cups dry curd cottage cheese, pot cheese, or farmer cheese
3 large eggs
1 cup milk
1-1/2 tablespoons finely grated fresh lemon peel
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Butter for the griddle
1. Combine the cottage cheese, eggs, milk, and lemon peel in a bowl.
2. Add the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt and mix to combine ingredients.
3. Heat a griddle over medium heat and add a small amount of butter.
4. When the butter has melted and looks foamy, working in batches, pour about 1/4 cup batter onto the griddle for each pancake.
5. Cook the pancakes for about 2 minutes per side, or until they are golden brown, adding more butter to the pan as necessary. Makes 4 servings.
Roasted Eggplant, Tomato and Mushroom Gratin
1 medium eggplant
5-6 tablespoons olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 tomatoes, sliced
6-8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup grated Mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
2. Cut the eggplant into slices about 3/8-to-1/2-inch thick.
3. Brush the slices lightly, using about 4 tablespoons of the olive oil.
4. Place on cookie sheets and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for about 15 minutes or until the eggplant has softened, turning the slices once.
5. Place the slices in a baking dish. Cover with the tomato slices and mushrooms.
6. Scatter the top with the basil, parsley, Mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Drizzle with remaining olive oil.
7. Bake for about 25 minutes or until top is golden brown. Makes 4 servings.
Baked Goat Cheese with Cranberries and Honey
8 Walkers Highland Oatcakes (or use Kedem Tea Biscuits)
4 ounces goat cheese
1/4 cup honey
3 tablespoons dried cranberries
2 tablespoons finely chopped toasted almonds or walnuts
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
2. Place the crackers two together on a cookie sheet.
3. Slice the cheese into four equal rounds and place one on top where the crackers come together.
4. Bake for about 10 minutes or until the cheese has softened and its edges ooze slightly.
5. While the cheese is baking, combine the honey and cranberries in small saucepan over medium heat and cook for a minute or two, until warm.
6. Gently transfer the cheese crackers and cheese onto dessert plates and drizzle with the honey mixture.
7. Scatter the nuts over the ingredients. Garnish with mint leaves. Makes 4 servings.
And if cheese doesn’t float your boat on Hanukkah, try out our oven-fried latkes, Hanukkah beignets, and delicious cookies.