Ciao, Chanukah!

Celebrate the Festival of Lights with traditional Italian creations

Fried Cheese With Fresh Tomato Sauce. Photos by Dan Kacvinski, food preparation and styling by Judy Zeidler

We are just back from a three-week vacation in Italy, where I had the opportunity to discuss Chanukah foods with members of the Florence Jewish community. Residents shared several of their holiday recipes that include the use of olive oil. This is the major ingredient in the fried foods they serve during the eight days of the Festival of Lights, recalling the miracle of the one day’s supply of oil that burned for eight days in the rededicated Temple.

This year, Chanukah begins the night of Nov. 27, followed by Thanksgiving the next day.

Italy has one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe, and some of the recipes included on my Chanukah menu are hundreds of years old. One of my favorite discoveries served in Italian homes during the holiday is fried mozzarella cheese topped with a fresh chopped tomato sauce. The cheese mixture may be prepared in advance and cut into cubes when cool, but it is important to fry the cheese just before serving so that it has a creamy consistency. For a more elegant version, the chunky-style tomato sauce can be transformed into a purée with the help of a blender.

Polenta Latkes, delicious by themselves, can be served as a side dish with fish or meat. They are also wonderful as an appetizer topped with sautéed mushrooms or sour cream. In most supermarkets, polenta is sold as cornmeal, and the coarse yellow variety is traditional. Nothing goes to waste in our home — the leftover trimmings from the polenta rounds can be served the next day or are delicious when sautéed in the fresh tomato sauce that is served with the fried cheese.

Pasta Latkes, made with thin egg pasta and fried in olive oil, were described by my Italian friends as the most ancient Chanukah recipe that they continue to prepare and serve today. They’re delicious when fried crisp and crunchy, and served with applesauce.

If you have leftover latke batter, try baking the mixture in the oven, kugel-style, adding two additional eggs, 1/4 cup of raisins and a little cinnamon. Then spoon it into a greased baking dish or muffin pan and bake at 375 F for 20 to 30 minutes until crusty.

For Chanukah dessert, Italian Jews serve Sweet Rice Frittelle (fritters), similar to the sufganiyot eaten in Israel during the holiday. Roll them in sugar, and serve with homemade fruit preserves. These delicious confections make a wonderful treat for family or friends — fill gift baskets with a dozen or so for everyone to take home.


∗ Fresh Tomato Sauce (recipe follows)
∗ 1 pound mozzarella cheese, finely diced
∗ 6 eggs
∗ 1 1/4 cups bread crumbs
∗ 1 teaspoon dried oregano
∗ 2 garlic cloves, minced
∗ 1/2 teaspoon salt
∗ 2 tablespoons dry vermouth or brandy
∗ 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
∗ 2 parsley sprigs, stems removed
∗ 4 fresh basil leaves
∗ 1 cup flour
∗ Olive oil for frying

 Prepare Fresh Tomato Sauce; set aside.

Melt the mozzarella over hot water in a double boiler. Pour it into the large mixing bowl of an electric mixer, and beat in 2 eggs. Add 1/4 cup bread crumbs, oregano, half the garlic, the salt and mix well. Press the cheese mixture into a 5-by-7-inch glass dish. Cover and chill at least 1 hour, or until firm.

In a bowl, lightly beat remaining 4 eggs. Blend in vermouth; set aside. In a food processor or blender, process the remaining 1 cup bread crumbs and remaining garlic, the Parmesan cheese, parsley and basil; set aside.

Cut the cheese mixture into 1 1/2-inch squares (about 15 pieces). Dip each into the flour, then the egg mixture, and finally into the bread crumb mixture to coat evenly. Place on paper towels, and chill 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

In a heavy skillet or deep-fryer, heat 3 inches of oil to 375 F on a deep-frying thermometer. Fry the cheese pieces, a few at a time, until evenly golden brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels. Serve at once with Fresh Tomato Sauce.

Makes 12 to 15 servings.


∗ 1/4 cup olive oil
∗ 1 large onion, finely chopped
∗ 3 large, ripe tomatoes, diced
∗ 1 tablespoon sugar
∗ 1/2 cup minced fresh parsley
∗ Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a nonstick frying pan, heat the oil. Add the onion and sauté over high heat, until transparent. Add the tomatoes and sugar, reduce heat to medium-low, and sauté until tomatoes are very soft, stirring occasionally. Add parsley, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Cool. Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside.

Makes about 3 cups.


∗ 1 (8-ounce) package of fine egg pasta
∗ 2 tablespoons margarine
∗ 1 cup olive oil
∗ 1 small onion, finely chopped
∗ 2 eggs
∗ Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Cook the pasta according to package directions; drain well. Transfer to a large bowl. Add margarine, blend well, and set aside.

In a small skillet, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat; sauté onion until tender, about 5 minutes. Add onion to noodles. Blend in eggs, salt and pepper.

In a large, heavy skillet, heat 1/4 inch of oil over medium heat. Drop the pasta mixture by tablespoons into the hot oil, flattening each spoonful with the back of the spoon to form a thin latke. Fry on both sides until golden brown and crisp, about 5 minutes per side. (Do not turn the latkes until the first side is golden and the top is firmly set.)

Drain on paper towels and repeat with remaining pasta mixture, adding additional olive oil as needed. Serve immediately or reheat just before serving.

Makes about 30 latkes.


∗ 1/3 cup medium-grain rice
∗ 2 cups whole milk
∗ Granulated sugar
∗ 1 teaspoon salt
∗ 3 tablespoons orange or lemon zest
∗ 1 tablespoon unsalted margarine
∗ 2 eggs, separated
∗ 1 teaspoon vanilla
∗ 1/4 cup flour
∗ 3 cups safflower oil for deep-frying

In a saucepan, combine rice and milk, and bring to a simmer, stirring frequently to keep rice from sticking to pan. As rice begins to cook, add 1 tablespoon sugar, salt and orange zest. When liquid is simmering, cover pan and continue cooking for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the rice has absorbed almost all the liquid and has reached the consistency of a soft pudding. Stir in margarine; set aside to cool. When rice mixture cools, add egg yolks, vanilla and flour, beating with wooden spoon after each addition.

Heat oil to frying temperature, 360 to 375 F. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, using the whisk attachment, beat egg whites with a pinch of salt until soft peaks are formed. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon sugar over egg whites and continue beating until stiff. Gently fold beaten egg whites into rice mixture. (At this point, you may cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to fry.)

Drop batter by teaspoons into hot oil and fry, turning once, until frittelle are crisp and brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and roll in additional granulated sugar.

Makes about 12 to 14 frittelle.


∗ 1 cup olive oil
∗ 2 cups chopped onions
∗ 4 1/2 cups vegetable stock or water
∗ 1 1/2 cups polenta or yellow cornmeal
∗ Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

 In a large sauté pan over medium-high heat, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add onions and sauté until tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the vegetable stock, and bring to a boil. Add the polenta slowly, whisking constantly. Reduce heat to medium and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until the polenta comes away from the sides of the pan, about 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

While still hot, spread polenta about 1 inch thick onto an oiled baking pan. Cool, cover, and refrigerate several hours or overnight, until cold and firm. Using a 2-inch-round, scalloped cookie cutter, cut polenta into rounds and transfer to a large platter.

In a nonstick skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and brown polenta rounds, turning occasionally, until brown and crispy on both sides. Drain on paper towels and repeat with remaining polenta rounds, adding additional olive oil as needed. Serve immediately or reheat just before serving.

Makes about 36 latkes.

Tips for Frying With Olive Oil

  • Use a nonstick skillet to reduce the quantity of oil needed.
  • eat oil before frying. This prevents the food from absorbing too much oil and cuts down the time needed for foods to fry.

  • Use extra virgin olive oil. It makes fried foods light, crisp and more healthful.
  • Fried foods should be drained on paper towels immediately.
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