A little Hanukah history, and a little recipe. Or two.

Okay, so here’s the story of Hanukah in a nutshell:  Political infighting between three guys vying for the High Priest spot in Judea resulted in the murder of one of them, and in seriously pissing off their Syrian ruler, Antiochus, because the murdered guy was his pick for the top spot. So Antiochus got mad at all the Jews because of these infighting knuckleheads, shut their Temple down and forbid anyone from practicing Judaism anymore. If you want a time frame, we’re talking the 2nd century BCE. Eventually, Judah Maccabee, the son of a Jewish dissident priest who was hellbent on regaining religious freedom, formed a guerilla army that successfully ousted Antiochus. With Jerusalem now reclaimed, the Jews could reconsecrate their Temple and start worshipping there again.

If you’re unfamiliar with Jewish synagogues then you don’t know that they always contain a light called the Ner Tamid – Eternal Flame – that burns continually as a reminder of the eternal presence of God. In my lifetime I’ve only ever seen the eternal lightbulb, but 2,200 years or so before Thomas Edison, you can be sure oil lamps were de rigeur.    So the Jews now set about re-consecrating the Temple and getting the Ner Tamid burning again.  But there was only enough consecrated oil for one day. I imagine a great debate over whether to light or not to light, with lots of yelling and tempers flying – think Alvy’s parents in Annie Hall and you get my vision of the scene. Well, the pro-lighters won, so even with only one day’s worth of lamp oil they rekindled the eternal flame, and while some folks got busy praying, some others ran out (no doubt half hysterical) to find and consecrate more lamp oil, which wasn’t such an easy task. It took eight days to get that sorted.

Amazingly, that one day’s worth of lamp oil burned straight through the entire eight days. Interpreted as an affirmation of the presence of God, that is the miracle of Hanukah, the Festival of Lights, and that’s what we commemorate for eight days every December, lighting candles each night and gambling for chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil that generally taste as waxy as the candles burning beside them. I guess the gambling bit is all about the big gamble they took in lighting that little bit of oil prematurely.

We also celebrate the festival with symbolic foods that emphasize the use of oil. Funny how all anyone ever used to think of was fried potato pancakes, but there you go. They were novel for centuries, and let’s face it, they’re delicious. That said, any Ashkenazi latkes – potato & onion pancakes – I ever ate growing up were traditionally served with applesauce and, in my experience, traditionally followed by a severe case of heartburn. The Sephardic version, keftes de prasa, is made with leek rather than onion, and is minus the heartburn. (What can I tell you; it’s our own little Hanukah miracle).

Tacuin Poireau28 by unknown master, Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Leek seller in a 14th century image by an unknown master.  This image is licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.org


We also make bimuelos, which I’m still working on. If you’ve been to Spain and eaten buñuelos – deep-fried, moist, puffy donuts rolled in granular sugar – then you’ve eaten bimuelos.

One more little story before I start rolling out recipes. Like so many houses in Spain, the one I rent has no central heating and one very inefficient fireplace. (It was built to be a summer cottage), so I bought a fancy ceramic stove that runs on butane. The day I brought it home I fired that baby up and got the whole house nice and toasty in no time flat. Saved! But the butane tank ran out after only five days. And the one after that, too. That’s all they last. So much for my economical heating solution. I was beside myself, because winter in my house is a long, damp affair. Well, last week I replaced the empty tank, and the new one – same size, I promise – has been going full throttle for a good ten days now. I will have a warm and happy Hanukah.

I wish you  the same!

recipe: leek pancakes

recipe: leek & potato pancakes




Filed under History, Holidays (fiestas judias), Recipes

17 responses to “A little Hanukah history, and a little recipe. Or two.

  1. David Grosswald

    Hey Janet

    I love your take on the story of Chanukah! I made the Keftes de Prasa and your other suggestions for Passover last year and they were a hit.

    Thanks for sharing!


    Atlanta Ga

  2. Janet Amateau

    Thank you, David! I’m glad everyone liked the food, and delighted to see you back here

  3. Danny

    How come you mention Bumuelos on Hanukah…Growing up in Seattle that was what we all ate on Hanukah! I am living in Israel right now and if I have to look at another one of those sufganiyot I am going to be sick…nothing compares to a Bumuelo fresh out of the oil with a little powdered sugar or honey. Hanukah Alegre, Danny

    • Janet Amateau

      I know, I know… It was my intention to post a good bumuelos recipe for Hanukah. Unfortunately, bumuelos are among the recipes that the best (Sephardic) cooks in my family took to their graves. In the hope of finding a really great one, I went slogging through a lot of profoundly bad recipes and had to just give it a rest. I’m far from done. Your remark made me all the more determined to get it right! And when I do, you’ll read about it right here. Thanks for the note – and don’t give up hope!

  4. Healthgal

    Oh my gosh Janet, my mom made bumuelos not only on Hanukkah but often as a dessert for our Shabbat meals. Delicious but I don’t have a recipe.
    Would love to introduce my kids to sumptious treat.
    Looking forward to the recipe.

    Estelle, aka Healthgal

  5. Alyse Elias Matsil

    My aunt Mildred used to make bimuelos as a dessert for Passover! They were made with matzo meal and they were syrupy with walnuts on top.

    • Janet Amateau

      Alyse – I also make a Passover bimuelo but it’s more like matza brei, i.e. soaked ground matza and egg. They’re pan fried and the result is a puffy pancake rather than a deep-fried donut or fritter (which is what non-Passover bimuelos are). We also eat them with syrup and walnuts and yes, they’re delicious! Is this the style your aunt made or were hers deep fried?

  6. Alyse Elias Matsil

    I think they were deep fried balls covered in a syrup made of water and sugar and topped with walnuts. I remember them as being very soggy. My mother told me her sister used to use a special circular donut pan to make them.

  7. Amy

    I have a bumuelo pan from Turkey–it is a family heirloom. A young woman brought it with her from Turkey–she was my husband’s grandmother. We use it only for Pesach–didn’t even think about it for Hanukah, but since it is KP I don’t want to change it–what I do want is to buy another pan or two. Does anyone know where to purchase such an item, short of returning to Turkey and looking in the Bazaars? Thanks for any assistance!

  8. Ilene Mirkine

    ‘Loved this, Janet. Re-posting is a beautiful thing! ….so is “forwarding-the-link” (and I’m sure that the recipients will also enjoy this).
    I have an alternative to your eternal lightbulb that our Rabbi (Ricky Diamond’s wife) uses: a painting, roughly 16″ square, that a congregant generously created. It’s wonderful, portable and familiar. I’m seeing it in my mind right now….

    • Janet

      Thanks, Ilene. This page was offline for a while, which I discovered this morning. 😛 Not everyone’s so enthralled with the recipe links, alas. But I like ’em. I’m glad you do, too.

      A painting instead of a lightbulb, eh? And Ricky Diamond’s wife!

  9. elizabeth

    Thanks, you’re a very good story teller – I could just see it, as I was reading! I’m going to give the bimuelos a try.

  10. Toby

    Do you know about this. When I saw it I thought of you. http://jewishstudies.washington.edu/converso-cookbook-home

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