Hanukkah has done it again. It crept in on Sunday night, while I wasn’t paying attention. Oops. I’d better go light some candles.
Hey, it’s not my fault that I lost track of it. For a holiday, it’s hard to pin down. It wanders around in circles like a guy who refuses to ask for directions.
Many years, it is considerate enough to coincide with Christmas, allowing it to properly fulfill its role as a present-giving sop to prevent Jewish kids from converting en masse before Santa’s annual visit. But once in a while, it refuses to cooperate and starts in November, and other years it waits until the very end of December.
A rabbi would tell you that it’s actually on the same date every year: the 25th of Kislev on the Jewish lunar calendar. But that doesn’t mean much to those of us who mark time with the sun. Lunar months lead to a kind of calendar lunacy. They are only 29 or 30 days long, causing the lunar year to fall about 11 days short of the solar one.
If left to its own devices, the slippage would cause even more holiday meandering than we have now. Fortunately, a wise elder resolved that problem back in the fourth century by codifying a system to add a leap month every two or three years.
That works on the macro level, keeping Hanukkah from eventually creeping into spring or summer, and Passover from bumping up against Thanksgiving. But it’s still pretty confusing. (I feel sorry for the poor folks who are born in Adar I, as the occasional extra month is called. When and how often do they get to celebrate their birthday? Maybe that’s why so many of the folks on JDate think they are younger than they appear to be.)
Anyway, this year the moon has decreed an early Hanukkah, one that will be over on Dec. 14, long before I can complete my holiday shopping and baking.
Fortunately, most of my cookies and gifts are for friends celebrating that other December holiday, Christmas, so I should still have time post-Hanukkah for those holiday preparations. I just need to squeeze out a little time this week to honor the Jewish holiday by deep-frying something.
Hanukkah commemorates a miracle involving a small quantity of oil that somehow kept a lamp burning for eight days; therefore, it has come to be celebrated with oil-soaked foods. Latkes — savory fried pancakes made of shredded potatoes — are traditional, but pretty much anything plunged into boiling fat to get deliciously crisp is in keeping with the theme.
I suspect that, in addition to Hanukkah’s convenient proximity to Christmas, its fat content has helped vault this relatively minor holiday into prominence. Other events on the Jewish calendar aren’t as lucky.
As I was wandering through Wikipedia boning up on Hanukkah facts so I can pretend to be authoritative, I came across some lesser-known holidays that really could benefit from a high-calorie tradition to bump up their appeal.
For example, I have seldom given a thought to poor Tu B’Shevat, the Tree New Year. It generally falls in late January, when (somewhat inexplicably) trees in Israel choose to send out their first new leaves. Somehow, the thrill of munching dried fruit while planting tree seedlings has not translated to this continent.
But maybe there’s hope for it to catch on. After all, who doesn’t like trees? And there’s nothing wrong with dried figs and dates. They just need to be incorporated into a food tradition with more pizzazz.
Deep-frying is already taken (plus, I don’t think it would do all that much for figs). But how about adding chocolate? Cacao pods grow on trees, so it would be in keeping with the event. Plus the ancients weren’t fools. I’m certain the only reason the Bible didn’t anoint chocolate as the holiest of all foods is that it’s from the New World and they didn’t know about it at the time.
OK, dried fruit and chocolate. I can feel Tree New Year’s appeal increasing by the moment.
I’ll work on a recipe, and in the meantime, I hope you are enjoying a happy Hanukkah this week and will honor it with something fried.
Then go buy a tree and get ready for the next big holiday on the 25th.
Jan. 25, that is. According to the Jewish calendar, that’s when we’ll be celebrating Tu B’Shevat.
Zengoula with Lemon Syrup
From “The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen” by Amelia Saltsman
I was thinking of making latkes, but my interest was redirected from savory to sweet by an email from Amelia Saltsman describing Zengoula, a kind of Middle Eastern funnel cake adopted as a Hanukkah tradition by Iraqi Jews.
Fried dough on its own is, of course, utterly delicious (hence the universal appeal of doughnuts), but these have the added appeal of being “glazed” in a fashion, by taking a quick dip in lemon syrup.
I realize this is a high-calorie time of the year, so you may be reluctant to dive into these immediately. But if they aren’t part of your Hanukkah celebration, I recommend clipping the recipe anyway. I can’t think of a better cure for a hangover on New Year’s Day.
You can find Amelia’s full recipe, complete with helpful hints, in her wonderful cookbook “The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen,” but my somewhat abbreviated version covers the basics.
1 1⁄8 tsp. (1/2 packet) active dry yeast
1¼ cups warm (about 100 degrees) water
1 cup flour
3/4 cup cornstarch
Scant 1/2 tsp. salt
2 quarts oil for frying
1/2 cup water
1 cup sugar
Make the dough the night before, or at least 6 hours in advance. Stir together the yeast and 1/4 cup of the water and let sit in a warm place for 10 minutes until the yeast bubbles.
In a medium bowl, stir or sift together the flour, cornstarch and salt. Stir in the yeast mixture and about 1/2 cup of the remaining warm water. Then slowly stir in the remaining water until the batter is free of lumps and the consistency of thick pancake batter.
Cover the bowl and refrigerate for 6 to 24 hours, until the dough has doubled in bulk.
In the meantime, to make the lemon syrup, use a hand zester (not a microplane) to remove the zest from 1 lemon in long strands. Then squeeze that lemon and as many more as needed to yield 1/3 cup juice.
In a small pot, stir together the lemon zest and juice, water and sugar over medium heat. Bring to a boil and cook for 1 minute, stirring frequently, until the sugar is completely dissolved and the mixture is clear. Pour into a pie pan to cool. (If you make it the day before, refrigerate it overnight.)
To make the zengoula, scrape the dough into a pastry bag fitted with a 1¼-inch plain (not fluted) pastry tip. Let it stand for about 15 minutes before commencing the frying.
In a deep-fryer or wok (I always use a wok for frying), bring the oil to 375 degrees. Use a thermometer — oil temperature is critical in frying. When the oil is hot, pipe some dough into it, trying to create a 3- or 4-inch coil or squiggle. The oil should bubble around the batter immediately. If not, it isn’t hot enough. Pipe in more coils or squiggles, but don’t crowd the pan. After a couple of minutes, use a slotted spoon or spider to flip the pieces over. Cook until golden and crisp, about 4 to 5 minutes total.
Drain the cooked fritters briefly on paper towels, then drop them in the syrup, turning to coat. Then transfer them to a tray in a single layer to cool.
Repeat with the remaining batter.
Once they are all completely cool, pile the zengoula onto a platter and pour any remaining syrup on top. Then serve them and watch them disappear.