It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Hanukkah is just around the corner and it’s hard to imagine a Jewish celebration without a large platter piled with potato latkes, levivot in Hebrew, as a centerpiece.
But when did the custom of eating latkes for Hanukkah begin?
To answer that we first need to establish what levivot or latkes really are.
Levivot got their first biblical mention in 2 Samuel 13, in the terrible story of Amnon, a son of King David, who raped Tamar, his half sister. Amnon asked for Tamar to come to his home and make him two levivot (dumplings, in the English translation). “And she took the dough, and kneaded it, and she prepared the dumplings before his eyes, and she cooked the dumplings. ... And she took the pan and poured [them out] before him.”
Rashi’s 11th century commentary explains that Tamar “made a paste of flour [or farina,] mixed it first in boiling water, and afterward in oil.”
The first levivot were made of flour, specifically buckwheat or rye. Buckwheat latkes, known as gretchenes latkes, are still common in France, as Joan Nathan notes in her book “Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France.” In the early years after Israel was established, immigrants from France, Poland and Russia would serve these buckwheat latkes during Hanukkah, according to Molly Bar David’s “The Folklore Cookbook” (in Hebrew), although her version is closer to today’s blini or pancake, cooked on an oiled pan rather than fried in oil.
The biblical term levivot makes its next appearance in the context of Hanukkah in medieval Provence, France.
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Kalonymos ben Kalonymos, a rabbi from Arles, writes in his 1332 satirical poem “Evan Bohan” about the variety of dishes served at a Hanukkah celebration, including levivot.
“In the ninth month, in Kislev ... / in order to honor Mattityah ben Yohanan the renowned / and the Hasmoneans, the important women should gather knowledgeable about making food [biryah] and cooking levivot, large and round, the whole size of the frying pan, / and their appearance good [tovyani] and ruddy [argamani], / like the appearance of the Rainbow.”
Kalonymos’s levivot are large, the size of the frying pan, and reddish in color, meaning they were probably still made of flour.
The 1402 Megilat Yehudit from Provence added more details. It tells the story, often recited in Hanukkah, of Judith, the beautiful widow who had saved her people from the Assyrian general Holofernes. In her book, “Medieval Hanukkah Traditions: Jewish Festive Foods in their European Contexts,” Susan Weingarten writes that in this 1402 version, Judith serves the enemy general levivot made with cheese. “She said to her maid: ‘Cook me two pancakes so I can eat at your hands.’” She salted the pancakes heavily and then mixed them into a pot with cheese. Judith then brought the salty fritters to Holofernes’s room.
Cheese latkes made with ricotta and called cassola or casciola (from the word cascio, cheese in Italian, according to Prof. Ariel Toaff’s “Mangiare Alla Guidia”) were introduced to the Romans by Jews expelled from Sicily in 1492. Sicilian Jews, writes Claudia Roden in her article “The Dishes of the Jews of Italy: A Historical Survey, published in the Spring 2003 issue of Notes from Zamir, were known as ricotta producers.
Cassola is still considered a Roman-Jewish specialty served during Shavuot, by Jews, and for Christmas, by Catholics. From Rome, according to Gil Marks’ “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” the cheese pancakes spread to Central Europe.
In 1618, Rabbi Menahem Lonzano, an Italian scholar who worked in Jerusalem and Constantinople, mentions cheese levivot as a Hanukkah dish, making clear they were served during the holiday in Sephardi communities as well.
Further east, sweet cheese latkes called syrniki were, and still are, popular in Russia, Ukraine and Poland. Syrniki are prepared with quark, a soft fresh cheese (known in Israel as gvina levana, or “white cheese”), eggs, sugar and sometimes with raisins.
Are we getting closer to the beloved potato latkes yet?
Only in the 16th century were Europeans introduced to potato from the New World, and it took another two centuries before all suspicions and prejudice were cleared and the root vegetable became the popular staple it is now. Germans were the first to make mashed or grated potato fritters called reibekuchen, which by the 19th century became popular in Poland and Ukraine as well.
Those potato fritters were known as latkes. According to Marks, the Yiddish word latke comes from the Ukranian oladka, itself is a twist on the Greek eladia (little “oilies”) or elaion (olive oil).
But the first latkes were not fried in oil, not to mention olive oil, which was hard to get. Instead, they were fried in goose fat, schmaltz, according to food historian Shmil Holland’s book “Schmaltz” (in Hebrew). Since geese were traditionally slaughtered in the winter during Hanukkah (and goose fat for Passover was prepared and saved during Hanukkah as well), goose schmaltz was abundant this time of year. Latkes were not only fried in it, but were also served with a side of goose gribenes (crispy skin cracklings), for extra flavor. For dairy meals, latkes were fried in butter and served with sour cream. But when fried in goose fat, the dairy sour cream had to be replaced by applesauce.
And there you have it – the modern-day Jewish potato latkes with a side of sour cream and applesauce.
Polish/Russian cheese latkes (Syrniki)
Syrniki are popular in Russia and Poland, mainly as breakfast treats, much like pancakes.
These delicate latkes were made originally with either German style quark cheese, Russian tvorog or Polish twaróg cheese that is very similar to farmer cheese widely available in America. You can find tvorog and twarógin in Eastern European or Russian supermarkets. You can use Israeli gvina levana (quark), farmer cheese, or strain ricotta to reduce its water content, as I do in the recipe below.
Recipe by Vered Guttman
Yields 15 medium latkes
1 lb. ricotta, farmers’ cheese, or tvorog (see note above)1/4 cup flour, plus more for dusting
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons olive oil (you can substitute half with butter)
For serving: powdered sugar, jam, sour cream
Skip this step if you’re using farmer cheese or tvorog. Set a fine sieve or folded cheesecloth inside a colander over a bowl and spoon ricotta into sieve. Let stand at room temperature for 1-2 hours to remove excess water.
Place the cheese in a food processor, add flour, eggs, sugar and salt and pulse to create a smooth batter. Don’t over-process the mixture. Transfer to a bowl, cover in plastic and chill in the refrigerator for at least one hour, and up to four hours.
Sprinkle a rimmed baking sheet with flour. Use two tablespoons or a mediumsized scoop, drop 1/2 inch mounds into the baking sheet. Sprinkle the mounds with flour and use your hand to lightly press them down to create flatter, round pancakes.
Line a baking sheet with two layers of paper towels.
Heat olive oil in a nonstick pan over medium heat. When oil is hot, use a flat spatula to gently move half the pancakes from baking sheet into pan. Fry until golden, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to paper-towel-lined sheet. Continue with the rest of the pancakes.
Serve immediately or at room temperature. You can sprinkle pancakes with powdered sugar and serve with a side or jam and sour cream.
Labda is actually a Georgian-Jewish Passover dish, but when many Georgian Jews moved to Israel, they transformed it into a Hanukkah dish.
It is prepared as a large latke and sliced to wedges to serve.
Recipe adapted from Molly Bar David’s “The Folklore Cookbook.”
Note: the original recipe calls for lamb’s fat mixed with oil for frying. Feel free to substitute with butter, vegetable oil or schmaltz.
Makes 8 latke wedges
1 cup finely chopped walnuts
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons butter or schmaltz (see note above)
2 tablespoons corn oil
Boil potatoes until tender. Peel and mash. Stir in the walnuts, eggs, salt, pepper and mix.
Heat butter and oil in a 10” nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Pour potato mixture into hot pan and fry on both sides until golden-brown and crispy, about 4 minutes each side.
Transfer to a platter, cut into wedges and serve.
Gretchenes (buckwheat) latkes
From Joan Nathan’s “Quiches, Kugels and Couscous.”
Makes 8 latkes
1 cup buckwheat flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 large eggs
2 cups grated onions (about 2 medium)
Vegetable oil for frying
Sour cream or applesauce for garnish
Stir flour, salt and baking powder together in a small bowl. Beat in eggs, mixing well, then stir in onions.
Heat a nonstick frying pan and add a film of oil. Ladle about 2 tablespoons of the flour mixture into the frying pan and heat, frying until golden, then flip and cook the second side. Eat alone or with sour cream or applesauce.