Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Hanukkah blogging, Day One: The Hanukkah Story, and Rugelach

Hanukkah (חנוכה), or the Festival of Lights, is celebrated for eight nights, commencing on the 25th day of the Hebrew month Kislev each year. It is the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday among American Jews - mostly because it's fun and child centered. We eat way too much good food, exchange gifts, light our menorahs and play the dreidel game. Unlike Passover, Yom Kippur, Sukot and some of the other holidays, it doesn't require intense spiritual preparation, and fasting? Not this holiday! Hanukkah is easy to celebrate. Laugh, commune and eat! What could be easier?

Our holidays are steeped in history and religious tradition, and even though it's a fun holiday, it is no exception. The significance of Hanukkah is in it's name - it means rededication, and the annual celebration commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after it was desecrated by the forces of Antiochus IV, who installed a Hellenistic priest and ordered pigs, a non-kosher animal, sacrificed on the altar. The traditionalist Jews joined forces with the a nationalistic group of the time led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son, Judah Macabee. They revolted against the oppression of the locals by the Greek government, and the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews as well as the desecration of the temple.

The revolt was successful and the temple was rededicated.

According to the Talmud, at the time of the rededication, there was only enough consecrated olive oil left in the temple to light the menorah for one night, but it is supposed to burn throughout the night, every night. Miraculously, that little bit of oil burned for eight days - the time needed to press and consecrate a fresh supply of oil for the menorah.

After the miracle at the Temple, an eight day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle of the light.

It is worth stressing that Hanukkah commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory: War is not glorified in Jewish culture (and many of us cringe at the current state of Israel).

The more religious see Hanukkah as significant of an ongoing quest to live a Jewish life and keep Jewish identity at the center of our lives. For some people that means keeping kosher and living the commandments. For me, it doesn't mean keeping two sets of dishes or observing all the rituals, or even prayer. For me, it simply means a daily dedication to striving for social justice.

And cooking.

And speaking of cooking, lets make rugelach. Rugelach (רוגלך) is a wonderfully decadent filled cookie made from a cream cheese based dough -that will melt in your mouth and send you through the ceiling, it is so good. Rugelach comes from the Eastern European, Ashkenazi tradition, and since that's my tribe, I tend to kick off the festivities with it. It is plenty high in fat to meet the Hanukkah criteria, even if it isn't fried!

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese (or Neufchatel, you know, for the calorie conscious...)
  • 1/3 cup sour cream
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 cup finely chopped walnuts
  • 1/2 cup chopped dates
  • Apricot Jam (optional)

  1. Cut cold butter or margarine and cream cheese into small bits and put the bits in the bowl of your food processor, then put the food processor in the fridge and let it chill for about an hour. Add the sour cream, flour and salt, and pulse until crumbly.

  2. Divide the crumbly mixture into four equal parts and shape into disks...wrap each disk in plastic wrap and chill 2 hours or up to 2 days. (I refuse to try to handle a cream cheese dough with less than 24 hours refrigeration.)
  3. Roll each disk into a 9 inch round. Keeping other disks chilled until ready to roll them.
  4. Combine sugars, cinnamon, chopped walnuts, and finely chopped dates.
  5. Roll each disk into a 9 inch round, and remember: keep the other disks chilled until ready to roll them.
  6. If you are using the apricot jam, you brush it on the round, then you...
  7. Sprinkle 1/4 of the sugar/nut mixture on the round and press lightly into the dough. With your chefs knife, or a pizza cutter, cut each round into 12 wedges. Roll the wedges from wide to narrow, you will end up with point on outside of cookie. (I know you have used a canned crescent roll, so don't plead ignorance.)
  8. Place on ungreased baking sheets and chill rugelach at least 20 minutes before baking. (This is important - don't be obstinate and impatient, Little Ms./Mr. Knows-Everything. If you are, and you pop it in the oven too soon, the rugelach won't cook evenly. Some will be scorched and some will be doughy and only a couple will be edible.)
  9. While the rugelach chills, preheat oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C).
  10. After chilling, bake them in the center rack of your oven 22 minutes until lightly golden. Cool on wire racks.
  11. Store in airtight containers...they freeze very well.

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