Wine and Cheese…and a Beheading?:  A Quick History of Latkes

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Hanukkah is of course the story of the Macabees, the miracle of one day’s oil lasting 8 days and special foods.  Yep, fried foods, which make sense because the miracle is about oil.  So we make and eat latkes and sufganiyot (doughnuts).  However, we must dig a little deeper and unearth a little history before this holiday comes upon us.

Yehudit or Jewess, Judith (in English) has a story that connects her and dairy to Hanukkah.  Like all good stories there is a heroine dressed to kill, a villain, good triumphing bad, wine and cheese and a song!

The King of the Assyrians, sends his General, Holofernes on a punitive military campaign against all who did not help him earlier in his successful war.  Every nation gives way to Holofernes except the Jews.  Although Holofernes is warned that God may well defend His people he places a siege on the Jews.  When things are looking really bad for us the Chief leader, Uzziah promises to the town folk to capitulate if there is no relief in 5 days.  In steps Judith.  She invites Uzziah and his men to her home where she reprimands them for their lack of faith in God and decides to take things into her own hands.  She is a beautiful widow and lives an ascetic and solitary life.   She prays, bathes and discards her widow’s weeds (and dresses to kill) and with her faithful maid she heads to the Assyrian camp where she deceives Holofernes and promises to deliver the Jews to the Assyrians.  She is so clever, beautiful and charming Holofernes invites Judith to his tent in order to seduce her.  She brings the cheese and undiluted wine and as he eats and drinks too much, he collapses drunk.  Judith grabs Holofernes’s sword and cuts off the head of the General.  She and her maid then take the head to Uzziah and it is the offensive the Jews now take and attack the Assyrian army and defeat them.  Judith is hallowed by all and a song of victory is sung and then she retreats with her maid to her quiet life at home where she lives until the age of 105 and is mourned by all of Israel when she dies.  Now this is a heroine!

In the Middle Ages, the Book of Judith, which today is not considered an official part of the Tanakh but known as the Judith midrashim had an important connection to Hanukkah.  By the 14th century eating cheese on Hanukkah is recommended to honor Judith by Rabbi Moses Isserles in a commentary from that time .  “Nissim ben Reuben (ca. 1310–75), known as the Ran, refers to Judith not by name, but as the daughter of Yochanan. In his account, which he says comes from a midrash, the woman gave the chief enemy cheese to eat so as to make him drunk, and then cut off his head. This, adds the Ran, is why it is customary to eat cheese on Hanukkah”.

So, what we now know is the original latkes weren’t potato!!!  They were cheese and were combined in eating foods fried in oil.  Potato latkes were a 19th century invention and the cheese tradition most likely was put to sleep because schmaltz or chicken fat  and milk wasn’t kosher or allowed by Jewish dietary laws.  Who knew?  So how about this Hannukkah we bring back dairy!  A recipe follows:


Cheese Latkes

These are dairy and can be made gluten-free if you use a GF flour such as King Arthur’s GF flour.  Serves 14-16 small silver dollar size latkes.

1 cup high quality whole milk ricotta cheese

3/4 cup flour

3 large eggs

2 tbsp granulated white sugar

1 tsp kosher salt

1/2 tsp baking powder

butter or vegetable oil for frying (approx. 4 tbsp)

Combine all of the above ingredients except the butter or oil for frying.  Stir or beat well until you have a thick batter.

In a preheated frying pan with about 4 Tbsp. oil or butter pour the batter into small silver dollar size pancakes.  Cook for 2-3 minutes on medium heat and then flip cooking for approximately the same amount of time.  Those of you who have made regular pancakes know what I’m talking about!

Serve with jam, honey, agave syrup or a raspberry or strawberry sauce….mmmmh!

References used: The Sword of Judith,,, image:  Cristifano Allori, 1613.