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Lots of latkes for Hanukkah
When Superstorm Sandy came calling, Carol Hoffman, a part-time Yuma resident with a second home in Queens, New York, was at her doctor's office having emergency sutures sewn while her husband held a flashlight so the doctor could see what he was doing.
“I felt like I was at the (Yuma) Territorial Prison,” Hoffman says, making reference to the medical devices on display at the prison's museum and the primitive lighting conditions of that era.
A member of the Beth haMidbar congregation, she usually celebrates Hanukkah in Yuma, where she spends the winter, but due to her current medical condition, she will stay in New York a little longer this year and observe the Jewish holiday there.
Hanukkah is celebrated each year beginning on the 25th day of the month Kislev in the Jewish calendar, which usually falls some time around November or December. This year, it runs from Dec. 8 through Dec. 16.
The word “Hanukkah” means “dedication,” and the annual “Celebration of Lights,” as it's called, commemorates the rededication of the Jewish Temple that was reclaimed from the Syrians in the 2nd century, Hoffman says.
Her humorous take on the holiday goes like this: “We were oppressed, we came, we fought, we won, let's eat!”
Then she returns to the more serious story of Hanukkah: A group of rebels known as the Macabees fought and regained control of the temple.
Before the Syrian invasion, there had been a special lamp inside the temple that the Jews burned continuously. When they reclaimed the temple, they sought to rededicate it by once again burning the lamp, but there was only enough oil for one day, and more would not arrive for eight days.
They lit the lamp anyway, and that small amount of oil that ordinarily would have only burned for one day burned for eight days, when more oil arrived to keep the flame burning continuously.
That is the miracle of Hanukkah that Jews celebrate each year for eight days. On the first night of Hanukkah, they light one candle in a menorah or hanukkiah (special Jewish candelabra). On the second night, they light two. Each night thereafter, an additional candle is lit until all eight have been lit by the eighth day.
Oil lamps were originally used, and the lamps were kept burning continuously during the eight days of Hanukkah, but due to the danger of fire, Hoffman does not burn hers nonstop. Instead, she keeps an electric hanukkiah “burning” throughout Hanukkah and lights candles only during times when she can monitor them.
She and her family and friends not only celebrate the holiday by lighting traditional candles, but also by singing traditional songs, playing games of chance, exchanging a single, simple gift each of the eight days, and eating traditional fried foods.
Since olive oil was used to light the lamps in ancient times, it is used symbolically to prepare traditional fried foods, such as jelly-filled doughnuts, fried chicken and latkes (potato pancakes) during Hanukkah.
However, any vegetable oil can be used, and peanut oil gives latkes an especially great taste, Hoffman says.
Her family eats latkes every single day of the holiday, which she makes using her Bubbe's (grandmother's) recipe. Though traditional latke recipes vary somewhat, most use grated potatoes and onions, eggs, baking powder, salt and pepper.
They are deep fried in very hot oil to make them crispy on the outside but moist on the inside. They taste something like hash browns dipped in ranch dressing.
Though they are delicious on their own, they are traditionally dipped in sour cream or applesauce at the table.
Other variations of latkes include those made with carrots, zucchini, or sweet potatoes and parsnips. “It's a good way to get kids to eat their vegetables,” Hoffman says.
Zucchini latkes have a flavor all their own, while carrots enhance the flavor of the potatoes used in carrot latke recipes.
The trick to cooking latkes properly is to be sure the cooking oil is very hot before dropping a spoonful of the mixture into the skillet, Hoffman says. Otherwise, they will absorb too much grease.
Once they have turned golden brown, she recommends removing them from the pan and draining them on paper towels layered on top of newspaper. The newspaper absorbs excess grease while the paper towels protect the latkes from the newsprint.
Hoffman says she'll miss celebrating Hanukkah with her son and members of her congregation in Yuma. But there in New York, the retired schoolteacher will gather neighborhood children together and teach them to play Dreidel.
Driedels are four-sided tops that are spun in a game of chance, and such games are traditionally played during Hanukkah.
Like a game of chance, Superstorm Sandy spared Hoffman's sixth-story apartment building just two miles from the shore but devastated surrounding neighborhoods, including those farther from the water.
She asks readers to pray for her family and neighbors still struggling in the storm's wake, and to donate money to the Red Cross or the United Jewish Appeal and designate donations for Superstorm Sandy relief.
And she wishes Yumans of all faiths and cultures happy holidays.
“I used to take my classes to the Jewish Museum in New York City because every world culture — Catholic, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist, etc. — celebrates a winter holiday that involves light,” she says. “Hanukkah — candles; Christmas — the star, the new light into the world from Jesus; Hindu — Diwali is celebrated; Islam has Ramadan and Eid. So we are all related through the use of lights.”
Bubbe’s (Grandma’s) Potato Latkes
6 to 8 potatoes, grated finely like mush
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 onion, minced or grated
2 eggs, beaten
Up to 3 tablespoons of flour or matzoh meal, if needed (just to “tighten things up”)
Vegetable oil, for frying
To remove excess moisture from potatoes, drain them in a colander, pressing them against the sides with back of a wooden spoon. Next, mix all ingredients in a large bowl with the wooden spoon. Add small amounts of flour, if needed, to bind ingredients together. Heat a generous amount of oil in a pan. Drop by spoonful into very hot oil and press with back of spoon to form patties. Fry on each side until golden brown. Drain on paper towels layered on top of newspaper. Serve hot with dipping bowls of sour cream and applesauce.
4 cups zucchini, grated
1 medium white potato, grated
1 medium onion, minced or grated
3 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons bread crumbs or matzoh meal.
Salt, pepper and garlic powder, to taste
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
Follow above directions for potato latkes.