This year, Hanukkah is a once in a lifetime event.
For the first time since 1888 and the last time for tens of thousands of years, according to one calculation Hanukkah and Thanksgiving fall on the same week. Hanukkah, which is usually a December holiday, starts at sundown on Wednesday, Nov. 27, making the first full day of the Jewish holiday the same as Thanksgiving.
Though the commercialism of such a rare coincidence is inevitable a Boston woman trademarked the term "Thanksgivukkah" last year; a 9 year old from New York City even invented a "menurkey," a ceramic turkey-shaped menorah, and has sold more than 1,500 and not for everyone, it does present unique opportunities for the food consumed on Thursday, Nov. 28.
"Within Judaism, there are ritual foods, which is really neat," said Marc Drucker, a reformed Jew and avid home chef who keeps kosher in his Menlo Park home.
Every Jewish holiday has some form of accompanying traditional, symbolic foods. Hanukkah, as the celebration of the miracle-burning oil that lasted for eight days in the holy temple the Jews reclaimed from the Syrians, is all about fried foods.
The two primary Hanukkah eats are latkes, or potato pancakes, and sufganiyot, essentially jelly-filled doughnuts. Both are dependent on oil a symbolic reminder.
Those brave souls who choose to forgo the boxed, pre-made latke mix are going down a notoriously difficult and messy road, having to peel and then hand grate potatoes and shred onion, then coax them to bind together with not much more than salt, flour and eggs. Latkes are meant to be golden crispy on the outside, evenly cooked yet still maintaining the potato's white color within.
"They're a lot harder to make than at least I would have originally thought," Drucker said. "So I probably went year by year over the last 10 years, recipe after recipe trying it and then you know, you put them in the oil ... so you're frying them in half an inch of oil and they would just disintegrate."
Drucker said he finally discovered a method to the madness: make the latkes with half pureed potatoes and half shredded potatoes.
Dottie Yourtz, a local kosher caterer, said her secret is using a Cuisinart.
"A lot of people are feeling like you have to grate up potatoes, add a little knuckle skin ... I am not one to hand grate," she said. "I am a Cuisinart lover."
She said the key is using the Cuisinart to shred potatoes and also cutting up chunks of potatoes to put in, creating a potato puree. What she calls "onion glue" finely chopped onion, eggs and matzo meal or flour (if cooking with meat, she suggested adding a little chicken fat to the mixture) holds it all together.
Another trick of the trade she uses is taking the entire mixture and wringing it out in a cheese cloth to expel any unnecessary liquid.
As a caterer who makes latkes in high volume (she made 300 one past weekend), she also recommends making the latkes in advance and freezing them something a home chef who might be cooking for both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving can take advantage of.
"You don't have to be there slaving over a stove," she said. "I get all of that laborious, messy work done ahead."
After making the latkes, lay them flat on a sheet and put them in the freezer. Once they're frozen, they can be bagged for easy storage.
"And then when you go to reheat them, put them in a single line on a cookie sheet and reheat them at 350 (degrees) so that they're heated through and not overly brown," she said.
Both Drucker and Yourtz also suggested creative ways to meld latkes with Thanksgiving, or just to do something different for the coincidental holidays.
Drucker said latkes can easily be made with sweet potatoes, turnips, carrots or other root vegetables. He said he also considered making "some kind of bastardized version" of latkes for turkey stuffing.
Though the potato pancakes are traditionally served with sour cream (and sans-dairy apple sauce alongside brisket), Drucker said he sometimes makes them as a single dish with crème fraiche and smoked salmon on top.
Yourtz is taking a similar approach on Nov. 28.
"For me, I was going to try to separate (the two holidays) a little bit in that I was going to do our traditional turkey during the day and then in the evening, because Thanksgiving itself is such a large meal, I was going to then do the latkes with multiple toppings," she said, crediting her friend with the idea. "Kind of make it a latkes tapas kind of thing."
Yourtz said she's thought about making a sweet topping with sautéed apples or pears ("don't mush it, just do that with butter, cinnamon and sugar"); a Thanksgiving hybrid relish with cranberry, pear and orange; guacamole or a corn, tomato and onion salsa; caramelized onions; sautéed mushrooms; even hummus or just chopped tomato and basil.
One could also serve the latkes with bowls of various topping options and allow guests to make their own.
"I like to keep it quasi-traditional, but pop it a little bit so that it's more creative and it's all about us and family," Yourtz said.
The other traditional fried Hanukkah food, sufganiyot, is another messy, "intimidating activity," Drucker said.
Deep-frying can be challenging for the home chef; especially when these doughnuts are meant to be puffy, light and able to be filled with jelly.
"The recipes that always call for making the doughnut dough, cutting out two circular rounds and then putting jam in the middle and then sandwiching them, seems like a literal recipe for disaster because if you don't seal it properly, they don't raise enough," Drucker said.
His solution: Instead, use a recipe for beignets, the deep-fried French pastry made famous in New Orleans.
"I realized, probably having had them or seen them, that beignets are perfect for it because they puff up nice and rich and pillowy so you can shove jam on the inside no problem," he said. "And they're super simple. You just roll the dough out, you cut it into whatever shape you want, whether it be a circle or even easier, I just take a pizza cutter and cut out squares. You fry them up and then you shove them full of yummy goodness."
Other holiday food mash-ups include making sufganiyot with pumpkin puree or replacing the jelly with cranberry sauce.
Though Hanukkah is also about fried, there's usually protein present: brisket, a tough cut of meat from the breast or lower chest of beef or veal.
Drucker said he usually braises the brisket, "slow and low" in beef broth in the oven at around 300 degrees. He's also used a smoker ("That's more of a southern Texas thing.") and a sous vide immersion circulator, a somewhat recent culinary-technological innovation that cooks bagged, vacuum-sealed food in a precisely controlled, low-temperature water bath. Because the food is totally sealed, it can be cooked in the sous vide at low temperatures for even days at a time.
This is ideal for cooking a meat like brisket, Drucker explained.
"Brisket's a really, really tough piece of meat. So you have to cook it to about 190 degrees internal ... rare is 135, medium rare is 142-ish. So you're just destroying this piece of meat, but you have to to break down all the connective tissue. So by doing it s sous vide, you're cooking it at like 160 degrees, so it's just slowly kind of melting away the connective tissue. So it's like a filet when you're done."
With all the Thanksgivukkah talk, menurkeys and typical holiday anxiety, it's easy to forget what both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving are supposed to be about: enjoying a meal with family, Drucker said.
"This year it just happens that it coincides, which will be nice to get to spend an actual Hanukkah and light the menorah with family. And that's all it should be about."
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