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A Low-Fat Celebration of Oil
By Joan Nathan

Hanukkah starts this year at sundown on December 25. It's a celebration of religious freedom, but also a celebration of oil and the miracle that provided light for the Jews for eight days instead of just one. It is the oil, not the commonly eaten potato latkes (pancakes) or soufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) that is symbolic at this celebration of freedom and festival of lights.

The Importance of Oil

Oil was not always just a dieter's vice; it was celebrated during Hanukkah long before the Jews rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem. Originally, before 165 B.C., Hanukkah was a midwinter festival of lights, a festival common in many cultures. Hanukkah fell near the end of the olive pressing season in Israel, so there was always an abundance of oil with which to cook and light lamps during the winter. The earliest solstice festival probably came about because the best oil was brought, as with every first fruit, to the Temple in Jerusalem—creating a sacred time.

Celebrating oil as a symbol of religious freedom dates back only twenty-two centuries, to 165 B.C., just after the Syrians had raided and damaged the Temple in Jerusalem. The Maccabees, the small Jewish army that had miraculously defeated the large Syrian one, returned to the Temple to repair it. According to the traditional story of Hanukkah, the Maccabees found only enough sacred oil, olive oil specifically, to light the menorah for one day. But, somehow, one day's oil supply lasted eight, and thus the oil is now symbolic of the cleansing and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights to commemorate this miracle.

A Celebration of Light

Each night at sundown a candle placed in a menorah, from right to left, and lit by the shammas (helper candle), from left to right, until the eighth night when the eight-candled menorah is aglow. Many Jews rejoice in their freedom to be able to celebrate without fear of persecution by giving gifts and eating foods fried in oil such as latkes and jelly doughnuts. Were there jelly doughnuts in ancient Israel? Were there potatoes? Of course not. Jelly is a modern ingredient and potatoes did not even hit the holy land until the latter half of the eighteenth or nineteenth century.

It was in the Middle Ages that Hanukkah evolved form a distinctly minor Temple festival to a major family one, during which fasting and mourning is forbidden and singing and celebrating encouraged. It was about that time that the deep-fried savories and sweets emerged amidst the celebration. The deep-fried goodies were brought with Jews to and from different countries. To celebrate the oil, Persian Jews ate and still eat zelebi, a snail-shaped deep-fried sweet. Greeks eat boumwelos, deep-fried puffs dipped in honey and rolled in crushed walnuts and almonds or nuts and cinnamon. And Israelis eat soufganiyot, a usually deep-fried jelly doughnut.

From the Old Country to the New World

American Jews borrowed traditions from Central and Eastern Europe but they put their own imprint on them. They often ate mandelbrot or rugelach, a half-moon shaped cream cheese cookie. The cream cheese dough may have been developed by the Philadelphia Cream Cheese Company because the dough is often called Philadelphia cream cheese dough. One of these early doughs appeared in "The Perfect Hostess", written in 1950 by Mildred Knopf, the sister-in-law of Alfred Knopf, the publisher. She mentioned that the recipe came from Nela Rubenstein, the wife of the famous pianist Arthur Rubenstein. It was made famous by Mrs. Knopf's friend Maida Heatter, who put rugelach on the culinary map with Mrs. Heatter's grandmother's recipe in her book of "Great Cookie Desserts".

With all the oil involved in Hanukkah, it is difficult to find a healthy way to celebrate. Here I have discovered a low-fat approach to the traditional rugelach and mandelbrot as well as jelly doughnuts which I have baked and then sprinkled with sugar rather than deep-fried. To make the rugelach low in fat I use low-fat cream cheese and a low-fat apricot filling. To decrease the fat in mandelbrot I used less shortening than usual. With tasty sweets like these it's clear that you don't need to eat much oil to celebrate the festival of lights.

Celebrate the Festival of Lights with Joan's heavenly Hanukkah treats:

Low-Fat Classic Rugelach
Baked Soufganiyot - Low-fat Israeli Hanukkah Jelly Doughnuts
Low-Fat Mandelbrot

About Joan Nathan

Joan Nathan is a nationally acclaimed cookbook author and host and producer of the PBS series, Jewish Cooking in America with Joan Nathan. Joan has won the Julia Child Award for Best Cookbook of the Year from the International Association of Culinary Professionals, as well as the James Beard Award for Food of the Americas. She is the author of five other books, including her most recent, "The Foods of Israel Today". A founding member of Les Dames d'Escoffier, Joan was inducted into The James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America in 2001. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Food and Wine Magazine and Hadassah Magazine. Joan lives in Washington, DC, with her husband and their three children.

 

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