Judith and the Latke
While we celebrate potatoes fried in oil to remind us of the miracle, the original latke may have been more of a homage to The Book of Judith. The first documented latke is mentioned in the 13th century by Italian Rabbi Kalonymus ben Kalonymus in a poem about pancakes for Hanukkah. But why cheese? For those unfamiliar with the story, The Book of Judith is an apocryphal work that tells the story of a heroic woman who saves the Jews from the Assyrians.
Judith lived in the town of Bethulia during the sixth century B.C. The story’s drama begins as the town is under siege and surrounded by enemies. The Jews close to defeat, are discussing surrendering unless God can save them. Frustrated by the lack of faith of her fellow villagers, Judith takes action and creates a plan to befriend the enemy’s leader, Holofernes, a general for Nebuchadnezzar, King of the Assyrians.
The general, taken in by Judith’s beauty invites her to his table. The pair continue to see each other over a few days and once again Judith is invited to a banquet in his tent. During the festive meal, Judith continues to feed him a steady helping of a salty cheese dish, driving his thirst. Throughout the evening, he continues to drink wine to quench his thirst and passes out drunk on his bed. As everyone else has left the tent, Judith takes the opportunity to grab his sword and cut off his head.
She takes his head back to the town of Bethulia and declares God’s glory. The Israelis, then attack forcing the Assyrians to flee.
While the story of Judith takes place hundreds of years prior to the Hanukkah miracle, the story was often conflated with Hannukah and read on the Shabbat before or during the holiday. In her honor, generations have eaten dairy foods to celebrate the victory. Combine cheese and oil and we get the first latke! It wasn’t until the 19th century that potatoes took center stage.
- 2 cups warm water (100-110 degrees)
- 2 packages of active dry yeast (not fast-rising)
- 5 1/2 to 6 cups flour (unbleached)
- 2 teaspoons salt
- Oil and shortening
- Spinach (Large Bag 2.5 lb)
- 1/3 cup flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 cup crumbled feta cheese (or more, to taste)
- 1 cup grated Romano cheese (or more, to taste), plus an additional topping
In a small bowl, stir together the yeast and the warm water and let stand in a warm place until the mixture bubbles about 10 minutes. Add flour and salt and knead the dough very well until it forms a soft dough (8 to 10 minutes). If using a mixer with a dough hook, knead for 8 to 10 minutes after the dough has been hooked. Divide dough into 4 pieces. Make them into patties and place them on a cloth that is floured. Oil the top of each patty and cover well in a warm location. Expose to as little air as possible. Let rise for half an hour or more, until doubles in size.
Take each patty and roll it out on a floured surface with a rolling pin to form as large a piece as possible without developing holes. Spread a thin layer of shortening over stretched dough. Roll tightly along the long edge into a cylinder, like a jelly roll, and set each roll into a pan of oil (1/2-inch deep). Cover with wax paper or plastic wrap and a cloth and set aside for one hour or more to rise.
Create filling with dry spinach chopped about 1/2-inch wide. Put flour in a bowl, then add spinach. Mix together, then add other filling ingredients.
Pull off or cut a small piece of dough, about the size of an egg, and roll until the dough is very thin. Add spinach mixture and form the dough to completely enclose the spinach mixture. Use oil on the work surface if necessary. Coil into a round shape and place on a greased or parchment-lined pan, and sprinkle with additional Romano cheese.
Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes or until brown. Cool on rack.
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