Hanukkah is either the festival of lights or a holiday dedicated almost wholly to a difficult, messy, unhealthy way of cooking — depending on how Grinch-y you’re feeling at any given time.
Frying can stink up the house, splatter grease all over the stove, use up all the oil in the larder, and result in leaden belly-bombs instead of fluffy treats. To say I was once not a fan of frying is an understatement.
But more than a decade of Hanukkahs (Hanukkot?) under my belt have taught me to stop worrying and love the oil. Here’s how.
1. Pick your pot. You don’t need a specialized deep fryer, but take a look at what you’ve got: The heavier, the better. Cast iron is great. It will hold heat well and help keep the temperature of the oil more consistent. Go for narrower over wider and deeper over shallower. Less surface area is good.
2. Pick your oil. You want to balance flavor, price, and smoke point. And that leads you to refined canola or corn oil, which both have smoke points above 400˚F. Peanut, grapeseed, and sunflower oil all have high smoke points, too, but when I’m filling a big pot or two with oil, these are too pricey for me. Vegetable shortening (like generic Crisco) is cheap but has a smoke point below 375˚F, which is the magic frying number.
3. Use lots of oil. Lots. You may think shallow frying is healthier somehow, but the more oil you use, the less heat it will lose when you add the food. A consistently high temperature (about 375˚F) will cook the food quickly and prevent it from becoming saturated with oil. A full quart of canola oil comes within three inches of the top of my cast iron pot. That’s about where you want to be; any closer and you risk splatters. (The latkes are shallow-fried rather than deep-fried because the batter is too loose to hold together well in a deep fryer.)
3. Work in small batches. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Recipes always say this and then you cram as much stuff as you can into the pot just to get it over with. There should be ample space — an inch or more — all the way around each individual piece you’re frying. Keep batches hot while you cook in a 200˚F oven. Line a rimmed cookie sheet with newspaper, put a cooling rack on top of that, and put it in the oven, then just slip your cooked treats onto that as you work.
4. Use a thermometer. A probe thermometer with an alarm is good, but a cheap candy thermometer works just as well. These have a clip that goes over the edge of the pan. Maybe our grandmothers could look at the shimmering surface of the oil and accurately gauge its temperature, but that ability has been bred right out of modern humans.
5. Maintain a consistent heat. The temperature will drop as you add food to the hot oil. Keep a very close eye on the thermometer and adjust as needed.
Now, turn on your exhaust fan, go close those bedroom doors, and start frying!
But, what to fry? Potato latkes and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) get all the attention, but the frying itself is actually the defining characteristic of a Hanukkah treat. Fried chicken. Tempura. Deep-fried Mars bars. Okay, not really.
But, round about day five of an eight-day marathon, those crispy potato pancakes you’ve been looking forward to all year start to look oppressively heavy. You want an alternative. Hard-line conservatives may tell you that a potato defines a latke, but don’t listen. Parsnips, carrots, matzoh, zucchini — basically, if you can grate it up and make a fried cake out of it, you can call it a latke. And that includes apples.
Apples! Doesn’t that sound like a light, tart alternative to the heavy potato? Apple latkes are great for breakfast or, with a dollop of schlag, for a filling dessert. Or, truth be told, for dinner, because it’s the holidays and the lines between sweet and savory start to blur.
And, while “sufganiyot” sounds festive enough, when you translate it to “jelly doughnuts,” they sound pretty workaday. I wanted a Hanukkah treat with more oomph, more flavor, more presence. I found it in the Italian Jewish tradition: frittelle. Little diamonds of fried dough, drenched in hot syrup. Lithuanian Jews make teiglach, which are very similar. But these frittelle di Chanuka have the festive flavor of anise and a hit of citrus in the syrup. Perfect.
Adapted from The 2nd Ave Deli Cookbook, by Sharon Lebewohl and Rena Bulkin
3–4 medium apples (Granny Smith is good), grated, to make three cups
1 cup rum, brandy, or calvados
1 cup matzoh meal or unseasoned dry bread crumbs
pinch of salt
¼ cup brown sugar
6 eggs, separated
oil for frying
Stir together apples and liquor and allow to sit for one hour.
Mix matzoh, salt, and sugar and toss with apple mixture.
Beat yolks lightly and stir into apple mixture.
Whip whites into stiff peaks and fold into dough.
Heat a half-inch of oil in a wide, heavy-bottomed pan until it shimmers (375˚). Spoon dough into oil to make 2-inch wide latkes. Cook 3-4 minutes a side, until dark golden brown. Remove to paper-towel or newspaper-lined plate to drain.
Keep warm in a 200˚ oven until ready to serve.
Frittelle di Chanuka
From The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews, by Edda Servi Machlin
2 packages yeast
1 cup warm water
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups flour, more if needed
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons anise seeds
1 cup raisins
oil for frying
1 ½ cups honey
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Dissolve yeast in water. Stir in olive oil. Stir flour and salt in a mixing bowl. Stir yeast mixture into flour to make a soft dough. Add more flour a tablespoon at a time if dough is too sticky. Knead 10 minutes by hand or 5 minutes in a standing mixer. Knead in anise seeds and raisins. Let rise about one hour, until doubled.
On a floured surface, roll out to about ½-inch thick. Cut into narrow diamonds about 2–3 inches long.
Fill heavy-bottomed saucepan with oil (leave at least 3 inches of room at the top) and heat to 375˚. Working in small batches, fry diamonds until golden on both sides, about four minutes total. Drain on newspaper or paper towels. Arrange on serving plate.
Heat honey and lemon juice in a small saucepan over medium. Bring to a boil and pour hot mixture over frittelle.