Chocolate Hanukkah

Each year around the holidays, I spend time in my test kitchen inventing new ways to say 'Happy Hanukkah'. This year, chocolate-laced baking seems just the ticket. To make sure these recipes have a subtle sensibility about them, take note of some key Hanukkah food elements.

Because of the Hanukkah story of the Maccabees and the famed oil that fuelled the Menorah (ceremonial candelabrum) for eight rather than the anticipated one night, oil is the symbolic ingredient. Oil is usually reserved to cook up the potato pancakes, used to fry up a batch of Israeli jelly doughnuts called 'sufganyot', or can be found in mandelbrot, the Jewish-style biscotti.

In addition to-oil-based recipes, cheese dishes are also welcome and are equally symbolic. Why cheese-based recipes at Hanukkah? This tradition can be traced back to the historic legend of Judith, a heroine to inspire all women. Hanukkah lore speaks of this quick-minded Jewish widow who was requested to dine with the Maccabees' archenemy, General Holofernes. Demure yet seductive,-Judith plied him with salty cheese dishes-all the better to bring on a thirst worth quenching with copious goblets of wine. Once the great general passed out, she promptly slew him. Judith's courage helped avert the potential disaster that would have resulted had Holofernes and his army clashed directly with the Maccabees. In her honor, enjoy cream cheese-based chocolate rugelach, as well as a chocolate chip mandelbrot or a luscious cheesecake studded with halvah.

What I ultimately like about this collection is that it provides a generous spectrum of traditional themes in Jewish baking. Cheesecake, rugelach, mandelbrot, an oil-based chocolate layer cake, and other simple sweets are an integral part of this cuisine. Adding a chocolate note to each recipe pumps up the crowd appeal. So bring out the Menorah, the candles, the Hanukkah gelt and the latkes. But be sure to offer a bountiful sweets table to cap the celebrations during the Festival of Lights.


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