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Keepin' Cakes for Chanukah
By Ethel G. Hofman
Chanukah at our house was always bright and cheerful. In Shetland at that time of year, darkness falls early, about 2pm. Outside, street lamps illuminated frost-rimmed shop windows casting an eerie glow on half a dozen deserted fishing boats bobbing on the murky waters of Lerwick harbour.
But indoors, our cozy kitchen was filled with wonderful mouth-watering aromas. I rushed home from school, eager to get into the warm house, where those spicy, sweet, and savoury smells wafted towards the front door. There were latkes, frying in olive oil spluttering at the sides of the big cast-iron frying pan; cinnamon sugar in a silver siever; and, warm from the oven, cakes studded with cherries, some with a marzipan topping, coconut pyramids and cinnamon ballsall set out on wire trays to cool. Ma, her face flushed and a blue butcher's apron tied around her ample waist, stood at the stove, spatula in hand, ready to turn those latkes at the precise moment when each was crisp and golden. Coloured candles had been inserted in my grandmother's brass menorah, which was prominently displayed year-round in the china cabinet. A box of Swan Vestas matches was nearby to light the candles at dusk. On Chanukah, the menorah got an extra shine with a soft chamois cloth, although it was polished each Friday morning along with the tall, rope-design Sabbath candlesticks.
Ma's one and only reference cookbook was Cooking the Jewish Way, by Ann Wald, published in 1961. Half a century later, Ma's presence comes alive within the book's faded purple covers. Stained with splotches of forgotten cake batter, the white pages have faded to golden brown around the edges, like crisp toast. Some are splattered with decayed traces of often-prepared puddings and pies, other pages have notes penciled in Ma's distinctive, upright handwriting. Inside I catch a glimpse of the eager enthusiasm and care with which she prepared meals for our family.
As I slowly leaf through the pages, as she had done countless times, I find cuttings from magazines: pineapple sponge custard, from the Jewish Echo; fruit tea loaf from the back of a package of Great Scot self-raising flour; and snowy apple pudding from the Woman's Own recipes she never got around to making, or made once and felt they were not worth the trouble. Dad especially was not very accepting of fancy food. But at Chanukah, when Ma cooked up piles of latkes, generously sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, and all the traditional Ashkenazi fried and dairy dishes he adored, he became increasingly mellow.
'Maybe the way to a man's heart is through his stomach,' Ma sighed. 'At least that's how it is at Chanukah'.
Ma was never too busy to answer my questions as I leaned, elbows on the table, watching the shreds of potatoes come flying from the hand grater. 'Why do we have latkes at Chanukah?'
I never tired of hearing the Chanukah story. I was completely captivated by the brave Maccabees and the miracle of the one-day supply of oil which lasted for eight days. 'And that's why we eat foods fried in oil,' Ma said, as she lifted dripping latkes from the frying pan and transferred them to sheets of clean brown paper to drain. We didn't have sour cream or apple sauce. 'That's all very well for those folks with a delicatessen on their doorstep,' she grumbled, adding, 'but we're not missing anything. Those folks in Glasgow have never tasted anything like this,' as she served us from a platter of hot, crisp potato latkes crowned with silky onion rings sautéed in virgin olive oil until golden. Another platter held piles of latkes sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, and, on the side, a dish of homemade blackcurrant jam which Dad liked to spoon over the latkes.
Ma was an adventurous cook, who nowadays would be called creative. In Shetland, she was 'daring'. A pinch of grated nutmeg or ground mace would be added to the cinnamon sugar 'to waken up your taste buds,' she said, daring us to voice the slightest dislike. A Chanukah meat meal in my grandmother's house had been fried salami and eggsan impossibility in Shetland. However, Ma always looked on the positive side of things. 'There's no salami to be bought in this backwater, but we do have plenty of eggs and beef.'
Instead, she fried up a batch of sliced beef sausages and sliced onions in a big frying pan, whisked a dozen eggs to pour over them, and then stirred the mixture all together over a low heat with a well-used wooden spoon as if she were scrambling eggs. For good measure, triangles of brown bread were fried crisply in hot oil and arranged around the mounds of sausages and eggs. For me, this was a close second to a meal of latkes.
Each night the brass menorah was lit (the coloured candles to fit our menorah, unavailable in Lerwick, were ordered from Michael Morrison's delicatessen in Glasgow), we sang 'Rock of Ages' and my brothers and I were given Chanukah gelt (money) on the first night. We did not get gifts on other nights, but we might have something special at supperan orange, a bar of chocolate, or a pink sugar mouse. Yes, we did have a Santa Claus decorating the dark fruitcake and we did hang up our stockings on Christmas Eve. Ma decided, 'There's no harm in it. They know we're Jewish, and a few toys certainly won't make them Christians.'
We didn't call it entertaining. 'Just come over for your supper,' was the usual invitation. Cooking at anytime, whether for family or friends, was 'from scratch' using whole, basic ingredients. A fish supper from Charlie's chip shop down by the Market Cross would be our modern takeaway.
'Vinegar and salt on it?' asked the cook, before she dexterously wrapped it in last week's copy of the Shetland Times. The fish was moist and flaky, the batter crisp and crunchy.
Convenience foods, processors and microwave ovens were far off in the future. Vegetables, washed under ice-cold running water, needed to be peeled, diced or shredded by hand. Feather-light puff pastry was diligently dotted with sweet butter or margarine, then turned and rolled the required three times to make flaky layers for fruit puddings or meat rolls. For stick-to-the-ribs steak and kidney puddings, Ma removed the membranes from chunks of suet before dusting with a bit of flour and chopping with her messer on the scrubbed wooden board.
Even if cake mixes had been available, Ma would never have deigned to use them. When, on a visit to me in America, she was finally persuaded to try a chocolate mix, she wrinkled her nose in disgust. 'It has a funny, tinny tasteand it's no wonder, with everything in it dried and fabricated. Anyway, you still have to add eggs, oil and do the mixing.' I was forced to agree, especially when she whipped up a couple of her Chanukah butter cakes. The verdict: 'no comparison'.
As the days were shortening into deep winter, housewives compared notes. 'What's the best recipe for dark fruitcake?' Every housewife had her own secret recipe. The grocery shops stocked up on dried fruits, ground almonds and spices, ingredients for the dense whisky-spiked fruitcakes, a traditional necessity for Christmas feasting. Ma made her own version, a moist yellow cake crammed with dried fruits which included apricots, golden raisins and diced candied citrus peel, steeped in whisky.
* * *
In keeping with the lesser custom of eating dairy foods at Chanukah, Ma made 'keepin' cakes': rich in butter and eggs. There was the light fluffy coconut cake; cherry cake, a buttery pound cake studded with glazed cherries; sultana cake heavy with golden raisins; and her favorite, caraway seed cake, fragrant with the little nutty anise-like seeds. As we baked, Ma told us all about how Judith, the brave Jewish widow, fed the enemy general, Holofernes, salty cheese and huge quantities of wine to quench his thirst. When he fell into a drunken stupor, Judith beheaded him and precipitated a Jewish victory.
In the cookbook Ma followed, recipe methods are brief, assuming the housewife had quite a lot of culinary expertise. Baking was a production taking a good part of the day. There were no electric mixers. Butter and sugar were creamed to a light fluffiness by hand with a sturdy wooden spoon and a strong arm. Eggs and sugar were whisked with a rotary hand mixer. A friend of Ma's, an incomer from Aberdeen, was famous for her light sponge cakes. One day, as we were walking to tea, Ma explained, 'She beats the egg and sugar with the flat of her hand.' I never ate sponge cake in that lady's house again.
We had an electric oven for baking, but in the country areas and in the other islands, ovens were heated by peat and coal. Temperature was gauged by simply opening the oven door and cautiously feeling inside with your hand. The more scientific method was to sprinkle some flour on a baking pan and note how long it took to brown in the oven. For us children, the best part was licking the spoons and the mixing bowlthe batter, a promise of the good things to come.
At Chanukah, I go back to baking my mother's recipes. Crunchy, crusted latkes and the spicy sweetness of home baked cakes evoke nostalgic memories, to be shared and treasured.
from the December 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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