Nosh Box: A is for Applesauce, B is for Blini, and C is for Challah.
Filled with custard or jelly, the deep-fried sufganiyot is a seasonal specialty.
A casual glance around the East Bay in December reflects the dominant theme all across America—a celebration that began in 336 A.D., according to historians. It’s also one that begins every August at Costco warehouses, when the current crop of decorations are tagged with item numbers and tendered for sale.
But another holiday predates the one celebrated annually on Dec. 25. This one began about five centuries earlier, and also starts on the 25th day of the month. Only the month is Kislev, and the calendar is not Gregorian, but Hebrew.
This celebration is not the birth of a messiah, but rather the re-dedication of a temple in Jerusalem, where the Maccabean Revolt had begun in the second century B.C. And instead of holly wreaths, nativity scenes, and the more secular yule trees, the principal ornamentation is an eight-place candelabrum or menorah, and a four-sided gaming top called a dreidel.
Although as well-known as Passover to the more than 97 percent of Americans who are not Jewish, Hanukah (or Chanukah, Chanukkah or Chanuka) is not considered a major Jewish holiday. And children are its principal focus.
Like many holidays, not only is food involved, but in this Festival of Lights, food plays a cardinal role in the rituals. While some of the foods are unique, many are generic, totally secular, and very commonplace.
Matzo is the mortar of Jewish holidays. Matzo meal is rolled into an unleavened flatbread that is the basis for dishes from canapés to flatbread pizza. Or the meal may be formed into matzo-ball dumplings that are served in soup.
It’s a great holiday that encourages eating fried food. One of the standards of Hanukah is latkes, aka fried potato pancakes. Made with grated raw potatoes, the holiday version uses matzo meal as the binder and thickener. A key to crispy brown texture is to squeeze the moisture from the grated spuds before combining with other ingredients. Keeping them crispy is best done on a wire rack in a warm oven.
Applesauce is the garnish of choice served with latkes, along with a dollop of sour cream. The recipe and process couldn’t be simpler. Simmer fresh apple chunks in apple cider for 20 minutes, with sugar, nutmeg, and cinnamon. It’s totally generic—even if you add a dash of Kosher Salt.
Russian in their origin, blini are buckwheat pancakes, often stuffed with cheese and then fried in oil, or topped with smoked salmon as a cold canapé.
Challah is braided bread, traditionally served in twin loaves. Originally reserved for major holidays, in contemporary practice, it’s part of Hanukah meals.
Gefilte fish is a mixture of poached, boneless, ground fish, often served as an appetizer. Considered an acquired taste by most, gefilte fish is more novice-friendly than Scandinavian lutefisk.
While salmon may be served glazed, lox, or smoked salmon fillet, is the more popular form. Lox appetizers are common; lox and eggs and crumbled matzo bread may be served for breakfast, brunch or a snack dish.
Chopped liver means chicken liver. Served as a side dish atop challah slices, the livers were sautéed in chicken fat, then chopped or ground, along with onion and hard-cooked eggs, herbs, and a splash of wine.
Most often served as a sweet dish or dessert, kugel has a savory side too. This noodle or potato casserole is made with eggs and sweetened with sugar—or instead embellished with onions and garlic.
Sufganiyot is a seasonal specialty. Filled with custard or jelly, this deep-fried doughnut is dusted with powdered sugar before serving.
Rugelach is a crescent-shaped pastry rolled around sweet fillings like chocolate; raisins, walnuts and cinnamon; or fruit preserves. Savory versions filled with salmon or chicken lurk on sideboards as a minority.
Sometimes iced with chocolate, macaroons are a favored dessert. These round cookies are baked using groundnuts and coconut, with sugar and egg whites.
Chocolate gelt is a special holiday chocolate candy pressed into gold-foil coins.