Chocolate for Hanukkah - why not?
While Jews of Eastern European descent celebrate Hanukkah with mountains of latkes, Sephardic Jews fry sufganiyot. But for everyone – and every holiday – there’s always…chocolate?
Yes, just about everyone’s favorite ingredient never goes out of season, claims award-winning author Alice Medrich, whose book “Chocolate Holidays: Unforgettable Desserts for Every Season” (Artisan) offers 50 luscious, decadent recipes to crown every holiday and celebration.
“I wanted to do a season-to-season book,” said Medrich by phone from her Berkley, California, home. “Other ingredients we like to cook with change with the seasons. The constant is chocolate.”
Jewish cooks know that Hanukkah is all about the oil. The symbolism goes back to ancient times, when Judah Maccabee and his tiny army defeated the Syrian-Greeks and recaptured Jerusalem. In attempting to rededicate the Temple, they found only enough oil to burn for one day. Miraculously it lasted eight days, and we've been celebrating with a frying frenzy ever since! But who says traditional potato latkes are the only fritter fit to fry?
“Chocolate Banana Blintzes are fried, and Hanukkah is a great excuse to serve them,” noted Medrich. “They are just so delicious, a fancy party dessert that’s easy to do.” Restraint, she said, is sometimes the secret ingredient. “A little burst of chocolate sauce in a hot crepe with bananas is more seductive than a chocolate blintz with chocolate filling,” she writes.
Another lesser-known Hanukkah tradition involves the story of Judith, a beautiful Jewish widow, who dined with the enemy general Holofernes. She plied him with cheese to make him thirsty for wine, and when he fell into a drunken stupor, she beheaded him with his own sword. Because her bravery is said to have inspired the Maccabees, some communities remember Judith by eating cheese during this holiday.
A delicious way to honor this unsung legendary heroine is with Honey Drizzled Chocolate Cheese Fritters, a recipe Medrich adapted from one by Marcella Hazan. The ricotta cheese batter with finely chopped chocolate and a hint of orange may be prepared up to two days ahead and fried within two hours of serving. Keep them warm in a 200°F. oven, and drizzle them with maple syrup instead of honey, if you prefer.
Hanukkah wouldn’t be Hanukkah without latkes, but grandma never dreamed of pancakes like this: Chocolate Latkes, with not a potato in sight. Heaps of chocolate and coconut combine to produce a crunchy, yet chewy cookie with a soft, almost brownie-like interior. Fill an edible chocolate-coated pretzel basket with the latkes for an eye-catching centerpiece. Smaller baskets can even hold chocolate Hanukkah gelt, coins traditionally given to the children on the holiday.
Medrich, whom the San Francisco Chronicle once dubbed the “patron saint of chocoholics,” was the founder of Cocolat, the legendary and innovative Bay Area pastry company that revolutionized chocolate making from the mid 1970’s to the early ‘90’s.
“Chocolate Holidays,” a revised edition of the previously published “A Year in Chocolate,” includes an extended section on ingredients, equipment and decorating ideas as well as “chocolate notes,” taking the guesswork out of selecting among chocolate varieties.
“All the changes and updating of chocolate make it more interesting to work with,” noted Medrich. “There are different blends of beans that now engage us.”
Whether she’s brewing a simple hot chocolate or spinning sugar for chocolate cream puffs, this master teacher encourages rather than intimidates with clear, precise instructions. The most important tip for a beginner in working with chocolate, she advises, is what the French call mise en place, setting out and preparing all the ingredients in advance.
“Baking is meditative. There’s a sequence of things that you do. It’s not free-form like cooking. Once you measure and prepare everything in advance, you dance through the steps. There’s a sense of discipline about it, the familiarity of doing a favorite recipe. It’s a pleasing ritual.”
Medrich is passionate about chocolate year-round and claims to eat it every day. “I’m certain there are health properties in chocolate,” she noted, “but it shouldn’t be an invitation to gobble down a lot of candy or desserts with extra sugar, cream and fat. Enjoy the good stuff, and don’t eat too much of it.”
No matter the holiday or season, chocolate’s seductive powers to comfort and astound are almost universal.
“Of all the special, quote, unquote, gourmet foods, chocolate is one of the only ones we have all loved since childhood,” Medrich observed. “It’s not an acquired taste. Maybe we liked milk chocolate and have grown to like bittersweet, but it’s always been there for us. It’s not intimidating. We didn’t have to learn to like it, like coffee, wine or caviar.”