I've come to believe that God has a twisted sense of humor. A few months ago, the food editor and I were discussing my Hanukkah food column. I (loudly) proclaimed that I wanted to write about so-called "healthy" Hanukkah fare - and what bullhonky that is.
"Baked latkes or latkes with Pam spray? Pshaw!" I scoffed. "We're celebrating the miracle of the oil, not the miracle of Pam."
Hanukkah, which began Sunday night and continues through Dec. 28, commemorates the restoration of the temple after the Maccabees defeated the Greek army. There was only enough oil to light the eternal flame for one day, yet miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days.
To symbolize the holiday, Jews cook foods in oil, most often potato pancakes and Israeli jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot. To me, the food isn't as key as is the method - fry in golden oil until crispy.
Fast-forward to a month later. My digestive system has revolted, and my doctor prescribes a complete overhaul of my diet. High-fat foods are off my plate, replaced by healthier choices.
And now? The "healthy" Hanukkah fare seems much more alluring.
To me, indulging in symbolic foods bathed in oil to recognize the miracle of the Hanukkah menorah is an important part of the holiday. Yet I recognize now that the price I would pay for eating such foods is high - and doesn't really match with the festive occasion. (Lying on the couch in the fetal position is not a way to celebrate the Maccabean victory.)
I hit some cookbooks searching for some healthier options that still included enough oil to pay homage to the miracle.
Cooking Jewish, by Judy Bart Kancigor (Workman Publishing, Nov. 2007), suggests "frying" the latkes on a nonstick skillet coated with vegetable cooking spray. At this point, the recipe notes, they will be "limp as dishrags." To remedy this, dip each latke in beaten egg white. Place the egg-white-coated latkes on a baking sheet that has been generously coated with vegetable cooking spray. Bake at 400 degrees until crisp on both sides, about 3 to 5 minutes each.
Enlitened Kosher Cooking, by Nechama Cohen, (Feldheim Publishers, Oct. 2006) offers low-carb, low-fat latke recipes made from other vegetables, such as cabbage and cauliflower. It suggests wiping a nonstick frying pan with a paper towel dipped in olive oil and then spraying the pan with nonstick cooking spray. With each batch add cooking spray and/or wipe the pan with oil.
Be patient - fry on a low heat and make sure they are cooked through.
Other cookbooks suggest cooking with just a small film of oil on the pan and letting the cooked latkes sit on paper towels to drain excess oil.
While oil is truly an important ingredient for Hanukkah, I decided to seek out a recipe that honors a Jewish heroine. In the story, Judith, a beautiful Jewish widow, is asked to dine with the Assyrian general Holofernes. She urges him to eat cheese to make him thirsty for wine, and after he falls unconscious from drinking she beheads him. To remember Judith and her bravery, some Jews eat cheese.
I discovered a recipe that meets all of my requirements: It uses oil, it has cheese as a main ingredient, and it can be modified to be less fat-laden, to appease my delicate stomach. Cheese latkes prove to be something I can eat (in moderation), and doing so helps me remember the miracle of the oil and Judith's heroism.
But most important, I can be healthier without succumbing to the miracle of Pam.
Hungarian Cheese Latkes
Makes 10 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
1. Mix the eggs and the sugar in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Add the cheeses, 3/4 cup flour, and salt. Process until smooth.
2. Heat a nonstick frying pan and pour in a film of vegetable oil. To test the thickness of the batter, drop about 4 tablespoons of batter into the pan and fry for a few minutes on each side. If the batter seems too liquid, add more flour. When the consistency is correct, continue frying the pancakes, a few at a time.
3. Drain on a paper towel and serve with a dollop of whipped cream, a spoonful of jam or a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar.
(Knopf, Sept. 1998)
Per latke (without optional toppings): 235 calories, 5 grams protein, 27 grams carbohydrates, 19 grams sugar, 12 grams fat, 68 milligrams cholesterol, 229 milligrams sodium, trace grams dietary fiber.