Award-winning author Joan Nathan dishes about Hanukkah
Recently I sat down with my long-time acquaintance, Joan Nathan, author of ten cookbooks, including her recent Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France. A pot bubbled on her stove and dough was rolled our on her marble pasty top; she was testing recipes and leaving in 2 hours for a three-week book tour.
Nonetheless, Joan seemed relaxed while telling me about Hanukkah in France. "Many French think of Hanukkah as an afternoon playtime for children. Sometimes the kids do skits," she said. Nearly half of all French Jews are from North Africa and, unlike us, they do not associate Hanukkah with latkes (typically, potato pancakes).
The stories Joan dishes out along with her recipes make her books delicious reading, so sometimes I open one and indulge in being just an "armchair cook." For instance in my review copy of Joan's new book I read a one page essay, "The Last Jew of Bergheim," in which she writes about stopping in Bergheim, a charming French village. At a bistro, Joan asks the owner whether any Jews still live in the town. The next morning she knocks on the door of a Jewish woman in her eighties, who says that every Sabbath she would make pot au feu and matze knepfle, an Alsatian stew and matzo balls, for her late husband. On the book's following page, Joan provides the recipe for pot au feu.
Of Hanukkah, Joan writes about the fried foods Jewish people eat today as a reminder of the oil that was required to light the lamps. Given that commercials for Christmas gifts have begun to crowd the airwaves and that Salvation Army Santas are already out in force, it's hardly too soon to be talking about Hanukkah, which begins the night of December 1. (That's only 6 days after Thanksgiving; now I'm worried it's not soon enough!)
The Jews in France who originated in Eastern Europe do make latkes, and Joan's Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous has a wonderful recipe that came from Poland to Metz in the Northeast of France. The dish, called Potato Chremslach, (chremslach refers to the well in the pan that was traditionally used to form them) should be eaten, as Joan writes, "piping hot, as directly from the pan, as your fingers and tongue can stand."
Tip: I read on Joan's Website, that in general she recommends making latkes on a griddle. If you use too much oil or cook them too close together, it will keep them from becoming crisp.
3 large potatoes (about 1 ½ pounds), peeled
2 large eggs, separated
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Peanut or vegetable oil for frying
Put the potatoes in a pot, cover with cold water, and boil for about 20 minutes, or until easily pierced with a knife. Drain them, and when they are cool enough to handle, press them through a potato masher or ricer.
Mix the potatoes with the egg yolks, and season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
Using a standing mixer, beat the egg whites to stiff peaks, and fold into the potato mixture.
Fill a wok or deep pot with about 4 inches of oil, and heat to about 375 degrees. Take about a tablespoon of potato batter at a time and form carefully into a ball. Then gently drop about three at a time into the oil. Fry for about 2 minutes, or until golden and crisp. Continue until the batter is used up. Drain on paper towels, and serve immediately.
Yield: about 24, serving 6 to 8
I also found a mouthwatering recipe for latkes (sans potatoes!) on Joan's Website. It had been highlighted on an episode of her 2000 PBS television series, "Jewish Cooking in America with Joan Nathan."
Lily Serviansky's Hungarian Cheese Latkes
2 large eggs
1 cup sugar
8 ounces cream cheese
6 tablespoons large-curd cottage cheese
3/4 to 1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
Vegetable oil for frying
Mix the eggs and the sugar in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Add the cheeses 3/4 cup of the flour, and salt. Process until smooth.
Heat a nonstick frying pan (any size) and pour in a film of vegetable oil. To test the thickness of the batter drop about 4 tablespoons into the pan and fry for a few minutes on each side. Do not worry if some of the batter spills out of the pancakes. Just scrape off the excess. If the batter seems too liquid, add flour. When the consistency is correct, continue frying all the pancakes, a few at a time.
Drain on a paper towel and serve with a dollop of whipped cream, a spoonful of jam, or a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar.
Yield: about 10 latkes