Jewish Journal


November 25, 1999

Granny’s Chanukah


I can still see my Granny, an apron protecting her good dress, her clunky lace-ups (the original granny shoes) planted firmly on her linoleum floor, grating potatoes, onions and crying. "I'm not crying 'cause I'm sad," she'd sniff, waving the onion fumes from her face. "We're going to eat latkes. We're going to light the candles. And the presents -- wait'll you see what I got you!" She was gleeful, giving us the best part of her, as we gathered in her kitchen on the first day of the joyous holiday -- Chanukah -- the "Festival of Lights".

My mother, Celia, my Aunt Dorothy (who is just 5 years older than me), and cousins of all ages, would crowd into her cozy kitchen to watch the Chanukah ritual and glean her annual instruction. Granny, (or Bubby -- as some of us called her) being the matriarch of our family, was a self-appointed teacher, and doled out her common sense, Yiddish philosophy about latkes and life.

She would set each of us up with our own graters, give us a potato, and in her trademark Latvian/Lithuanian/untouched by the King's English accent -- ask "So, vel, isn't it the same thing?" To Granny, love and latkes were synonymous.

"I use a combination of russets and new potatoes. Never just russets -- too rough! It's like the brawn without the brains. Like comparing a dancer to a doctor. So, after they're grated, we drain off the liquid -- don't want potato starch going straight to our hips." Then she'd pour peanut oil into a heated, cast iron pan. "We'll wait until the oil gets blazing hot, that way the oil won't penetrate our latkes. Grease on Chanukah -- your whole year is clogged!" Granny would roar at that line.

"But the most important thing, make your latkes with love, even if you don't love everyone who's gonna eat 'em." We giggled uncontrollably. Then she'd look us all square in the eye, wag her finger, and warn, "Forty days before a daughter is born, her husband is selected in heaven -- but if you don't put love into your latkes, you never know what might happen!"

These memories make me sad because I miss her, and because her anecdotes and advice have so enriched my life. And then I think of Grandpa (Zeda), who'd recite the story of Chanukah as we were eating our latkes. It was amazing how he made the same story sound different each year.

"Over 2,000 years ago, the Syrians and Greeks defeated the Jewish armies and confiscated their Temple in Jerusalem. They filled it with statues of foreign Gods and tried to force us to worship these idols. We refused, and were punished harshly. Finally, a small band of soldiers, led by Judah Macabee, marched to Jerusalem. Although they were outnumbered a hundred to one, they were determined. For three years, they hammered away at their enemy, until they triumphed, and miraculously won the first recorded battle for religious freedom." Zeda would always nod at my brother, Dennis, for recognition, after he made that last statement.

"After their victory, Judah and his men climbed the mountain overlooking Jerusalem, and seeing there was no more resistance, cautiously entered the desecrated Temple. They were devastated at the ruins, but heartbroken to find the lamp of Eternal Light snuffed out. Desperately seeking pure olive oil to relight the lamp, they rummaged through cask after cask -- to find only one tiny jar -- enough for one day of light. They nervously poured it into the lamp. But, instead of burning for one day, it stayed lit for eight, during which time they rededicated the Temple and gave it back to the Jewish people."

At the end Zeda had tears in his eyes, and bubby joined him. She thought no one noticed because she'd hide her face with her lace handkerchief, but we all heard her sniff. Then she'd plant a big kiss on his cheek, and drag him to his seat so she could serve him the first latke. But before he'd eat, he'd tap his glass with a spoon and, with his own brand of "grace", pronounce wistfully, "Let's hope, God villing, mit good health and happiness, next year, ve'll be together again."

Our family carries on in their tradition, lighting the Menorah for eight days, to commemorate that miraculous event. Each night at sundown, we add a candle, one the first day, two the second, until, on the eighth day, all the candles are lit. After the candle lighting, each child gets a gift wrapped in shiny blue and white paper to celebrate the colors of the Jewish flag and we dole out chocolate Chanukah gelt. Then the children play games for pennies, nuts, or candies, by spinning the dreidel, a 4-sided top.

Some years ago, we instituted our Chanukah family picnic at the park, where we play baseball and bring portable stoves to make our latkes outside. Mama Celia has inherited Granny's role -- she's even got her speech down pat. Aunt Dorothy made a gigantic silver and blue star, under which we placed all the presents. My favorite picture of our daughters-- Julie and Felicia-- was taken under this star.

Granny Fanny's Tips

for the Perfect Latke:

1) Hand grate the potatoes, celery and onions on a coarse grater. (You really can taste the difference) Otherwise, use the grating attachment on the food processor.

2) Grate the onion next to a running cold water faucet. It helps reduce the tears.

3) Shape the latkes with a rounded tablespoon or wooden spoon. Be sure to flatten them with your hands before cutting them into the pan. Big fat latkes may look appealing, but chances are when they're golden brown on the outside, they won't be cooked enough inside.

4) A Granny conundrum: Although it's important to shape the latkes with your hands, don't handle them any more than necessary. The less they're handled, the lighter they'll be.

5) Use peanut or vegetable oil. Sorry folks, no olive oil-- it doesn't heat hot enough.

6) Make sure your oil is blazing hot. It really does help keep the oil outside the latke.

7) Make the latkes as close to serving time as possible. Keep the first batches warm in a low oven (200 degrees) while cooking the remaining batter.

8) Remove the latkes carefully from the frying pan, so they don't fall apart, then put them on layers of paper towels to drain. If necessary, pat the excess oil off the top.

9) Always taste the first few of the batch, then adjust the seasonings. Latkes tend to be bland, but salt, pepper, paprika, cayenne, and various herbs will spice them right up.

10) Since we are all concerned about our health, most of us don't do much frying anymore. On Chanukah we eat fried foods to commemorate the "Miracle of the Temple Oil." My mother, Celia, is very health conscious but she taught me, "Moderation is key in all things" so Chanukah is one of the few times of the year I give myself the present of a juicy, delicious latke.

11) Another traditional item is sour cream; it is delicious on potatoes, in general, and especially on latkes. On Chanukah, I eat sour cream on my latkes, but you can substitute yogurt or a combination of yogurt and sour cream, or even low fat sour cream. Or simply, just the traditional applesauce or my favorite, Caramelized Apples.

Granny Fanny's Potato Latke:

Granny emphasizes that the first batch might not turn out, so consider these few fledgling latkes "one or two for the pot".

3 new potatoes, peeled and grated

3 russet potatoes, peeled and grated

1 large onion, grated

2 cloves garlic

2 stalks celery, minced

Lemon juice as needed

4 eggs, beaten

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 cup matzo meal

1-2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon paprika

Peanut or vegetable oil as needed

Place potato mixture in large colander; rinse them with cold water to remove excess starch and moisture. Sprinkle with lemon juice to prevent discoloration. Transfer mixture to clean bowl. Stir in remaining ingredients. Heat oil in a skillet over high heat. Using a mounded tablespoon, shape latkes into 4-inch circles, pat them thin, and drop into the hot oil. Flatten the latkes with the back of the spoon. Cook for 4 minutes on each side, or until

golden brown. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately, or put into moderate oven (250 degrees), until ready to serve.

Sweet Potato Latkes:

5 sweet potatoes or yams, peeled and grated

1 russet potato, peeled, grated and squeezed through cheesecloth

1 onion, diced

1 red bell pepper, diced

1/2 cup chives, chopped

1 tablespoon parsley, chopped

3 eggs, beaten

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1 tablespoon lemon juice

3 tablespoons flour

Peanut or vegetable oil as needed

Since sweet potatoes don't have the watery consistency as their paler cousins, you won't have to squeeze them through cheesecloth. But the rest of the directions are the same.

Cauliflower or Broccoli Latkes:

1 head cauliflower or broccoli, par boiled,

then mashed

2 new potatoes, grated fine

1 sweet onion, grated fine

2 garlic cloves, pressed

1/2 cup fresh Italian or curly parsley,

chopped fine

1/2 cup chives, chopped fine

1/2-cup bread crumbs

1 well beaten egg

1/2-1 teaspoon salt

Pinch of cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1 cup peanut oil or vegetable oil

Combine cauliflower or broccoli, potato, onion, garlic, parsley, chives, breadcrumbs, egg, salt, cayenne pepper and thyme. Mix ingredients thoroughly; pile mixture into a rounded tablespoon. Flatten with your hands, form into 4" circles, and drop into blazing hot oil. Fry on one side until golden brown, then flip onto the other side. Serves 4-6.

Zucchini Latkes:

1 pound zucchini

1 cup russet potatoes,

1 onion

2 garlic cloves

2 eggs, slightly beaten

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon dried basil

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

1/4 cup flour

Peanut oil

Grate zucchini, potatoes, onion, garlic, and drain. Squeeze through a cheesecloth. Mix squash pulp with eggs, salt, spices, and flour. Fashion into circles. Heat oil in skillet, drop into the oil and fry until golden brown. Serves 6.

Walnut Latkes:

1 cup chopped walnuts

2 c mashed potatoes

2 eggs, well beaten

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1/8 cinnamon

Peanut oil for frying

Parsley for garnish

Combine all ingredients and mix well. Fry as above. Garnish with parsley.

Apple-tato Latke:

3 medium russet potatoes, coarsely grated

1 large green apple, coarsely grated

1/2 cup onion, coarsely grated

3 tablespoons flour

2 eggs, beaten

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Prepare as above.

Granny Fanny's Applesauce:

6 green apples, peeled and quartered

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1-2 tablespoons brown sugar or honey

Grated rind and juice of 1/2 lemon

Water to barely cover

Place apples, cinnamon, sugar or honey and lemon juice into saucepan. Add water, cover, and simmer gently for about 10 minutes, or until apples are soft. Put mixture into food processor and blend as chunky or smooth as you prefer. Drizzle lemon rind and juice over the hot fruit. Serve hot or cold with latkes.

Caramelized Apples:

Beautiful on a serving plate, and an interesting alternative to applesauce.

3 tablespoons butter

3/4 cup granulated sugar

3 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and quartered

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In heavy sauté pan, heat butter and all but 1 tablespoon of sugar. Add apple slices and vanilla. Sauté over medium high heat until sugar has caramelized to dark brown and apples are cooked. Place apples on serving plate; pour caramelized syrup over them. Sprinkle remaining sugar over the top.

Chanukah Pennies:

The roundness of these cookies symbolizes not only coins, but also no beginning and no end

1/2 cup softened butter

3/4 cup brown sugar

1 1/2 cups dark molasses

2/3 cup cold water

6 cups sifted flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon allspice

1 teaspoon ginger

1/2 teaspoon cloves

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Pinch of salt

3/4 cup pecan halves

Mix butter, sugar and molasses thoroughly. Stir in water. Sift dry ingredients and stir in butter/sugar mixture. Chill dough. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Roll out dough very thick, about 1/2 inch. Cut with 2 1/2 inch round cookie cutter or rim of glass. Place far apart on lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake 15 minutes until golden brown. Decorate with pecan halves. Makes 32 cookies.

Chocolate Chanukah Gelt:

16 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted

Melt chocolate on top of double boiler. Using a teaspoon, spoon coin-size dollops of melted chocolate onto wax-paper-lined baking sheets. Refrigerate and set. Wrap in silver or gold foil and store in refrigerator until hardened.

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