Frying high: Keeping known, lesser-known culinary traditions

Chanukah mini-doughnuts are called ponchiki in Russian and ponchik in Yiddish. (Barry Kaplan/Jerusalem)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Latkes and sufganiyot, the jelly-filled doughnuts especially popular in Israel, are well-known Chanukah fare made with oil to signify the holiday tale.

Lesser known is the tradition of cheese and the story of Judith.

Like the Chanukah story, which is part of the Apocrypha — books not incorporated in the Bible — the book of Judith tells of a beautiful widow whose town was under siege by the army of the Assyrians and decided to visit the commander in chief of the army to ask him not to overtake the town. As the story goes, she gives him wine, he gets fall-down drunk and falls into a stupor. Judith beheads the king and saves her people and the town.

Legend has it that Judith fed him cheese to make him thirsty, and since she lived in the same period as the Maccabees, Jews of various communities instituted the custom of eating cheese dishes in honor of her heroism.

On my cookbook shelf is a a classic written in the 1970s — “A Taste of Tradition” by Ruth Sirkis, the “Julia Child of Israel.” Sirkis has written numerous cookbooks and was the food editor for a major Israeli women’s magazine; she also had a popular radio show.

“A Taste of Tradition” covered all the Jewish holidays; below are some of her Chanukah recipes. Plus to celebrate Judith, some cheese recipes are included from various sources.

(This recipe is from “Spice and Spirit, The Complete Kosher Jewish Cookbook of the Lubavitch Women.”)

3 eggs
1 cup milk
1 cup drained cottage cheese
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup oil

1. Place eggs, milk, cottage cheese, flour, baking powder, salt, sugar and vanilla in a bowl and mix until smooth.
2. Heat oil in a frying pan (if using nonstick pan, use less oil.)  Drop batter by spoon into hot oil. Fry until brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels and continue until all batter is used. Keep warm until serving. Serve with sour cream or applesauce.

(This recipe comes from a Chicago chef Gale Gand, who got it from her mother-in-law.)

Vegetable oil
3 large eggs
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
1 1/4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
Confectioners’ sugar

1. In a large saucepan, heat 2 inches of vegetable oil. Set a large wire rack over a baking sheet, top with paper towels and position near the saucepan.
2. In a large bowl, beat the eggs, sugar and vanilla with a wooden spoon. Add the ricotta and beat until smooth. Add flour and baking powder and beat until just blended.
3. Using a very small ice cream scoop or 2 teaspoons, slide 8 walnut-size rounds of batter into the hot oil. Fry over moderate heat until deep golden all over and cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the fritters to the rack to drain. Continue frying the remaining fritters in batches of 8. Arrange the fritters on a platter and dust well with confectioners’  sugar. Makes 8 servings.

(Here are recipes by Ruth Sirkis for the mini doughnuts called ponchiki in Russian and ponchik in Yiddish that were brought to Israel by Polish immigrants, as well as several types of latkes.)

1 cup water
4 ounces margarine
1 cup flour
4 eggs

1. Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan. Add margarine and continue boiling until it melts. Add the flour and mix with a wooden spoon until the mixture forms a ball and leaves the sides of the pan.
2. Remove from heat. Beat in the eggs, one at a time.
3. Heat oil in a pot for deep frying. When oil is hot, drop in pieces of dough from a teaspoon. Let puff and turn as needed to assure even browning.
4. Remove from oil with slotted spoon. Drain on paper towels. Serve hot with warm sauce.

1 cup light corn syrup
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon unsalted margarine

1. Combine syrup and chocolate in a saucepan. Heat over low heat until the chocolate melts.
2. Remove from heat, add vanilla and margarine. Mix well.  Serve warm.

1 cup orange juice
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Juice from 1 lemon
2 tablespoons orange liqueur
2 teaspoons grated orange rind
1 tablespoon unsalted margarine

1. Mix orange juice, sugar and cornstarch in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and boil for one minute, stirring constantly.
2. Remove from heat and let cool. Add lemon juice, orange liqueur, orange rind  and margarine. Mix. Serve warm.
(Author’s note: You can also sprinkle confectioner’s sugar on ponchikes instead of sauces.)

1 cup mashed potatoes
2 ounces margarine
1/2 cup flour
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
Dash white pepper
1 teaspoon dehydrated onion flakes

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Prepare mashed potatoes according to packaged directions, substituting water for milk or boil and mash 1/2 pound fresh potatoes.
2. Add margarine, flour, eggs, salt, pepper and onion flakes. Mix well.
3. Fill a pastry bag with a 1/2-inch round tip with potato mixture. Lightly grease a cookie sheet. Press out latkes on cookie sheet to resemble a 3-inch long ladyfinger.
4. Reduce oven to 375 degrees. Bake latkes for 15 minutes. They should puff a little and have a golden color. Serve immediately. Makes 16-20 latkes.

2 pounds peeled potatoes
1 small onion
1 small apple
2 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1. Grate potatoes on a coarse grater. Peel and grate onion and apple.
2. Beat eggs lightly. Add potatoes, onion and blend well. Add salt, flour and baking powder, and mix thoroughly.
3. Pour one inch of oil in a large skillet and heat. Drop pancake mixture by tablespoons into the hot oil. Fry and brown on both sides. Serve hot with sour cream and applesauce. Makes 20 latkes.

(Note: You can also use an electric blender for grating. Cut each potato into 8 pieces, put in blender and cover with water. Close lid and blend at medium speed for 5 seconds. Drain through a sieve. Put potatoes in bowl and proceed.)