Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday that suffers from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yes, it’s a tale of heroism (the Maccabees) and miracles (the oil lasted for eight, not one night), and it’s subtitle is “The Festival of Lights” (nice touch). But it is not one of the major Jewish holidays such as  Passover, or Rosh Hashannah, or Yom Kippur. It is a lesser holiday whose “street cred” has been amped up by Jewish parents and retailers because of its proximity to that big mamajama, Christmas. Many Jews (and retailers) wanted a compatible substitute for Christmas and poor Hanukkah was it. The, excuse my French, Christianization, of the holiday is blatant, and unfortunately the Maccabees and menorahs often become overshadowed by the fact that everyone is clamoring for eight days of gift-giving and receiving. 

When I was a child, my parents usually gave out Hanukkah “gelt” (money), and not eights nights of it. The gifts were ancillary to the dreidel playing, menorah lighting, and latke gorging--although I do remember a lovely pleated magenta skirt that came one year, and a set of children’s cookware (thank you Lola) that came another year. When I became a parent, I shamefully gave in to the Hanukkah hype and my children generally enjoyed eight nights of gifts. But there were usually one or two big gifts and the rest of the nights were themed nights, such as “sock night,” “pajama night,” and so on. Many of these gifts were things my children were going to get regardless.  I tried to be creative--one night's gifts were usually donated to a charity, and I vaguely remember a night where we dragged our kids to the Theme Restaurant at the Los Angeles Airport and eventually wound up at a nearby diner because Theme didn’t serve hamburgers--well, I tried.
If Hanukkah were celebrated in June or July, perhaps the message of the holiday would be better served. And even though it does arrive when it does, harassment still abounds. Based on the Jewish, not the Gregorian calendar, Hanukkah’s  arrival is not always close enough to Christmas for some. It falls out in the beginning of December, or heaven forbid at the end of November (as it did in 2010), the holiday is berated for being “too early!” And if it falls out after Christmas, it is “too late!” This poor holiday just can’t win.
One of the positives of Hanukkah is that it is yet another opportunity for families to get together and celebrate. Food is always a guest at those celebrations, and fried foods are king on Hanukkah (because of the oil, get it?). Since there are as many latke recipes on the Internet as there are gifts under some of the“Hannukah bushes”  out there, I won’t bore you with yet another one. Noodle kugel, or “koogel” as some West Coasters call it, is something I like to serve on Hanukkah. It is pure Jewish comfort food--a casserole that is both dense and creamy, with a vanilla custard hiding amongst the nooks and crannies of the egg noodles. The version below is one  I found in “The Gefilte Variations” by Jayne Cohen. I found the addition of pears adds a nice seasonal touch, and the gingery crumb topping lends a pleasant crunch. I sometimes omit the topping as I enjoy the burnt noodle tips that often peek out from above the custard. During other times of the year I also substitute fruits such as apples, peaches, and even dried blueberries.
(adapted from a recipe by Jayne Cohen)
12 oz. wide egg noodles
8 oz. cream cheese, at room temp.
8 oz. sour cream
1lb. cottage cheese
5 eggs, beaten
4 tbsp. unsalted butter,melted,  plus additional 4 tbsp., softened, for topping
2/3c. brown sugar, firmly packed
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. salt
3 large, ripe Bartlett or Bosc pears, peeled and sliced about 1/4 inch thick
About 2 cups gingersnaps, crumbled
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. 
Cook the noodles according to the instructions on the package. Drain.
Swirl the 4 tbsp. melted butter around the bottom of a 9 x 13-inch glass baking dish. Sprinkle the butter with 1/3c. of the brown sugar and arrange the pears evenly on top.
In the container of a blender, mix the cream cheese, sour cream, and half of the cottage cheese until smooth. Pour into a large bowl, and add the remaining cottage cheese and brown sugar, eggs, cinnamon, vanilla extract, and salt. Add drained noodles. Combine everything well. Pour the contents of the bowl over the pears in the prepared pan. Combine the gingersnap crumbs and remaining 4 tbsp. butter and sprinkle over the top of the kugel.
Bake the kugel for about 1 to 1 1/4 hours. (It should be slightly firm.) Let cool until set. Cut into squares and serve warm or slightly chilled (not icy cold).

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