This year Hanukkah begins at sundown on Saturday. Commemorating the rededication during the second century B.C. of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the eight-day celebration pays homage to the miracle in the Second Temple when a single day's supply of olive oil kept the menorah's flames flickering for a full eight. Beyond menorahs and dreidels and chocolate coins wrapped in foil, the holiday reliably has this at the center of festivities: fried foods.
Sufganiyot (jelly-filled doughnuts) and latkes (potato pancakes) are the order of business. We discussed the sizzling treats with two Tampa Bay area kosher caterers to get the ins and outs of celebrating the holiday.
Dina Dubrowski, 29, is the mother of three and wife to Rabbi Mendy Dubrowski at Chabad South Tampa. Growing up, her father owned a kosher restaurant in Brooklyn called Ess une Bentsh (Yiddish for Eat and Bless).
"I didn't grow up cooking in the restaurant, but I've been cooking since middle school, helping around the house for Shabbat and the holidays. For Purim we made hamantaschen; for Hanukkah, doughnuts and latkes."
Her catering business, Dina's Kitchen, serves those in the Tampa community who observe kosher. As her husband Rabbi Dubrowski says, "Kosher foods are now carried in groceries like Greenwise and Fresh Market, but the restaurant part of the kosher experience hasn't caught up yet. There's really nothing out there — we can get coffee at Starbucks and that's about it. That's something that needs to be rectified."
For Hanukkah goodies, Dina explains the allure of the doughnuts.
"It's really a fried piece of dough that's sweetened, everybody loves them. There are different ways of making them. Often they are injected with jelly or custard and topped with powdered sugar. Growing up, we always had Hanukkah parties and usually had a meal of latkes. Some people eat them plain; some with sour cream; it's all personal preference."
She remembers her mother insisted on using the old-fashioned box grater for the potatoes because she was convinced they tasted better that way.
Ethel Pila, who has been a kosher caterer in Tampa for the past 15 years, suggests Yukon gold potatoes for latkes, and she suggests not peeling them.
"There's no need to peel them, just wash them. Then it doesn't look like such an arduous task. The biggest help in terms of getting a nice crispy texture is to be sure to squeeze out all the liquid. Also, you need to get the oil hot enough and not crowd the pan."
But — as both Pila and Dubrowski explain — the challenge for the kosher cook is coming up with a meal that is either meat or dairy — for they can't be mixed. Those who keep kosher are prohibited from eating dairy and meat in the same meal, even preparing those foods on the same dishes or cookware. Add sour cream into the latke mix, and your hands are tied.
"When planning a meal around latkes," Pila says, "if you're doing sour cream and going dairy, I might go blintzes or quiche or salmon (for the other foods) with a green salad, and if you're doing meat, I'd do a brisket."
For Pila, the key to a successful Hanukkah gathering is getting organized well in advance so you're not stuck in the kitchen the whole time. She suggests grating the potatoes with a food processor in advance and keeping them in cold water.
"Then involve the guests in the cooking, and while kids can't do the frying part, get them involved in the squeezing and the mixing. Let them get their hands in it and shape little balls."
She suggests making your own applesauce to "kick it up a notch," and, if you want to experiment with doughnuts, maybe try beignets with a bananas Foster kind of accompaniment.
On the other hand, she says, "Our Publix in Carrollwood is certified kosher, so I buy the jelly donut holes there and they are quite good. There are just certain things that other people can make better in a commercial kitchen."
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com, (727) 892-2293 or on Twitter at @lreiley.