Though Hanukkah falls between November to December, Hanukka isn’t really a Jewish version of Christmas. Hanukkah is a festival dedicated to many things, including the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem with olive oil. In English it is known as the Festival of Lights. Children especially love this festival. There is a traditional game with a spinning toy called a “dreidel”. It has four Hebrew letters, one on each side and they represent the words “a great miracle happened here.” Not to mention the custom to receive a small gift on each of the eight days that Hannukah lasts.
Speaking as a Jewish expat from Britain, I have to admit that it has been a little sad that I am not surrounded by close family at this happy time. It’s very difficult to explain, but sometimes, being Jewish isn’t always about keeping every custom and tradition. Sometimes it’s about a feeling, a difference in the air, something that is intangible and very hard to describe. Jewish festivals are very much about all the family being together, enjoying a home cooked meal and feeling the warmth and comfort only close family and friends can bring. Even though Italy is now my home, there is nothing quite like the feeling when I go home to England to see my mother and brother.
The holiday’s origins go back to 168 BC, when the Syrian-Greek King Antiochus captured Israel. Mattathias, a devout priest and his five sons fought for three years against the tyranny of King Antiochus. They called themselves the Maccabees and eventually won the great battle. The Jews reclaimed their temple and lit the precious oil in celebration. The oil was enough to last one day but miraculously it lasted for eight days and the original oil lamp is now the traditional “menorah” a candelabra with eight branches, one for each day plus the higher branch which is lit every day.
It takes eight days to prepare freshly pressed olive oil, so where better to go for inspiration than Italy where olive oil is almost considered a beverage? The original recipes have changed to reflect the local ingredients of the new countries where the Jewish people settled; those who settled in the Mediterranean use fresh-pressed olive oil to fry their holiday foods, because Hanukkah falls at the end of the olive-pressing season. And just as the menorah plays an integral part in the religious practice of the holiday, so too does the latke. But potato latkes aren’t the only latke that is a part of Hanukkah cuisine. In Italy they make polenta latkes! Cornmeal is used to make polenta – the coarse yellow variety is most traditional.
And Pasta Latkes, made with fine egg pasta and fried in olive oil, are also credited by some local Italian Jews as the most ancient Hanukkah recipe still served today. They’re delicious when fried crisp and crunchy and served with apple sauce. But we have choosen a recipe that has peaked our interest….an Italian version of the classic doughnuts served in this period.
FRITTELLE DI HANUKKAH (Hanukkah Fritters)
Author Edda Servi Machlin fondly recalls an elderly aunt in Italy getting up at the crack of dawn during Hanukkah to make these ancient alternatives to the more familiar doughnuts for her family.
2½ cups unbleached flour plus more to flour work surface
2 envelopes active dry yeast
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons anise seeds, crushed
1 cup dark seedless raisins
1 cup warm water
2 tablespoons olive oil and more for frying
1½ cup honey
Combine 2½ cups flour with the yeast, salt, anise seeds and raisins. Gradually add warm water and olive oil until a pliable dough is formed. Turn out on a floured surface and knead 5 minutes until dough is smooth and elastic. This may also be done with the dough hook in an electric stand mixer. Shape dough into a ball on a floured board, cover with a kitchen towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free place for about 1 hour, until more than doubled in bulk.
With the palms of your hands, deflate dough and pat to a thickness of about ½ inch. Oil the blade of a long, sharp knife and cut dough into 36 diamond shapes. Let rest, uncovered, 15-20 minutes.
In a wide, shallow pan, add oil to a depth of 1½ inches (you can use a bland vegetable oil rather than olive oil if you prefer). Heat until the temperature reaches 365° on a deep-fry thermometer. Fry in batches so as not to crowd pan, turning once, until golden on both sides. Drain on paper towels.
Meanwhile, heat the honey in a small saucepan and allow to boil for 3 minutes. Place drained fritters on a serving platter and pour the hot honey over them.
Serve as soon as possible, with plenty of paper napkins.