Jewish Journal

Holiday Heroine

With the legend of Judith, Chanukah becomes a 'cheesy' time.

by Linda Morel

Posted on Nov. 29, 2001 at 7:00 pm

Herbed goat cheese spread over crudites. Photo by Michael Kitada/Newscom

Herbed goat cheese spread over crudites. Photo by Michael Kitada/Newscom

Each year, Jews light Chanukah candles for eight evenings in a row, repeating the story of the Maccabees, the ancient guerrilla warriors who launched surprise attacks on the occupying armies of Syria.

Judah the Maccabee and his four brothers overthrew Syrian tyranny, restored the Temple in Jerusalem, and witnessed a miracle when a one-day supply of olive oil burned for eight days until a new batch was produced.

That miracle and the Maccabees' daring eclipsed the tale of Judith, the beautiful widow who also met the enemy and triumphed.

During one of Judea's darkest hours, Holofernes, a general from Asia Minor, laid siege to the town of Bethulia. In no time its water supply dwindled to almost nothing, and the town was close to surrender.

The Book of Judith, an apocryphal work that probably dates to the Second Temple period, relates how a young widow, determined to save her people, purposely beguiled the general, who unwittingly obliged by falling in love with her.

The widow and the general dined together often, until one night when Judith served him salty cheese and plied him with wine to quench his thirst, making him tipsy. Holofernes fell into a stupor. Judith grabbed his sword and cut off his head, rescuing her town and thwarting the Syrians.

Although several versions of Judith's story circulate, none of them has been confirmed as true. Scholars who've studied and debated aspects of the tale for centuries, have generally agreed that it is intended to teach us that the most powerful forces can, with the help of God, be defeated by those who may appear physically weak but are in fact spiritually strong.

In spite of its dubious veracity, Judith's legend has led to the custom for some Jews of eating cheese and other dairy foods at Chanukah. There is some evidence that partaking in cheese may be as old as Chanukah itself. The salty cheese that Judith served Holofernes may have been in the form of fried cakes.

Recipes for ricotta pancakes in Italy and feta cheese pancakes in Greece may be modern versions of these ancient fried cakes. Today, trendy chefs are reinventing Chanukah pancakes using goat cheese.

Although foods fried in oil have been the heart of Chanukah cuisine for centuries, potato latkes were once considered newcomers. Carried aboard cargo ships from Bolivia and Peru, potatoes first arrived in Europe in the 16th century, precluding the possibility that they played a part in early Chanukah celebrations.

For the most part, Ashkenazic cuisine defers to Sephardic tradition when it comes to serving cheese dishes at Chanukah. Olive oil has always been plentiful in Sephardic countries, but in Eastern Europe oil was once a scarce commodity. Ashkenazim often fried latkes in goose fat shifting their Chanukah celebrations toward meat.

Paying homage to Judith's courage, in some Sephardic cultures women do not perform work during the first and last days of Chanukah. On the seventh night, women sing, dance, drink wine and eat foods made from cheese.

In deference to the one-day supply of oil that stretched for eight days, the shortening of choice in the recipes below is olive oil.

Although at Chanukah Jews of Eastern European descent clamor for traditional latkes, potato pancakes fried in olive oil complement these menu suggestions. The Festival of Lights offers eight days of opportunities to dedicate a dinner or a brunch to dairy fare. In the spirit of Judith's bravery, savor cheese dishes, let the wine flow, and toast one of history's unsung legendary heroines.

Herbed Goat Cheese Spread
  • 1 8-ounce pkg. commercial cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon parsley, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon chives, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary, ground or chopped needles
  • dash of white pepper

In a blender or food processor, combine all ingredients until well mixed. Place in an attractive bowl. Serve with crackers or crudités as an hors d'oeuvre; or as an appetizer with pita bread accompanied by a green salad. Yield: 6-8 servings.

Ricotta & Mushroom Matzah Brei
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup ricotta cheese
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • Salt to taste
  • Olive oil for frying
  • 12 crimini (or white) mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 pieces of matzah, broken into one-inch squares
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 9 inch deep-dish pie pan

1. Place eggs, ricotta, milk and salt in a bowl and mix well. Reserve.

2. Pour 3 tablespoons oil into a large skillet and sauté mushrooms and garlic until soft. Remove from pan.

3. Lightly sprinkle matzah with water and sauté in mushroom drippings until crisp, adding oil when needed.

4. Return mushrooms to pan and mix with matzah. Add more oil.

5. Pour egg mixture into pan, spreading evenly. Sauté until brown. Cut into four wedges. Turn wedges and brown.

6. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and serve immediately.

Yield: 4-6 servings

Swiss Cheese Quiche
  • Crust:
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick sweet butter
  • 1/4 cup ice water

1. Place dry ingredients in food processor. Cut butter into four chunks and mix. With machine running, slowly pour water through feed tube. Mix until ingredients form a ball of dough, approximately 2-3 minutes.

2. Place dough on surface sprinkled with flour. Cover rolling pin with flour, and roll dough into a circle large enough for pie pan. If dough tears, simply pat edges together with fingers.

3. Cover half of dough circle with foil and fold remaining half over the foil. Repeat with a second piece of foil, so dough is folded into quarters. Lift folded dough and place over 25 percent of greased pie pan. Unfold dough so entire pan is covered. Pat into place. Trim excess dough from rim.

  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 large zucchini, sliced thin
  • 3 tablespoon olive oil
  • 6 eggs, beaten
  • 12 ounces Swiss cheese, diced
  • Cream, 1-2 cups
  • Salt & white pepper to taste

1. Preheat oven to 350. In a large saucepan sauté onion and zucchini in olive oil.

2. Place onion mixture, eggs, cheese and salt in a two-quart measuring pitcher. Add cream until contents reach six cups.

3. Pour into prepared dough in pie plate.

4. Bake for 40 minutes or until crust browns, top of quiche turns light brown and custard feels firm. Yield: 8-10 servings

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