Artemisia Gentileschi was a famous Baroque artist who lived in the Florence of the Medici and the Rome of the Popes. Her dramatic paintings are filled with heroines from the Bible. But it is the audacious story of Judith, a young widow and unlikely savior of the Jewish nation in the second-century B.C.E., that Gentileschi depicts in six magnificent paintings.
When her famine-stricken town is besieged by Nebuchadnezzar’s top general, the cruel Holofernes, Judith decides to take action. Accompanied only by her maid-servant, she enters the enemy camp. Enticed by her beauty, Holofernes invites her to a banquet where salty cheese is served. They are alone in his tent when he falls asleep in a drunken stupor. Judith prays to G-d for help, then with great courage and fortitude, she takes Holofernes sword and decapitates him in one bloody stroke. With the Assyrian army in a state of confusion, Judith urges the Israelites to stage a surprise attack. They emerge from the battle victorious.
Nowadays, the Hanukkah celebration centers on the victory of the Maccabees over the Assyrian-Greeks, but in the Middle Ages, the Rabbis placed the story of Judith front and center.
Hanukkah is truly the coziest, most joyous time of the year. Every year, I invite my brothers, my nieces and nephews and my cousins and their children. I set up a latke bar with a huge pile of potato latkes and lots of toppings. The choices include caramelized onions, sautéed herbed mushrooms, Labne, kosher caviar, smoked salmon and whitefish salad. In a nod to Ashkenazi tradition, I include a homemade applesauce.
There’s also a falafel bar with all the fixings—hummus, tahini, Israeli salad, pickles and olives. To add to the commemoration of the little crucible of oil that burned so brightly in the rededicated Temple, I also serve fresh-fried Sephardic style donuts called bumuelos and rosquitas.
We light the big, beautiful menorah that was given to Neil by the Sephardic Educational Center many years ago. Our children light their menorahs, a few more are lighted and then the glow in our home is immense and magnificent.
The very talented chef Sam Sheff (yes, Rachel’s son) inspired us to incorporate Japanese yam into our sweet potato latkes this year. The drier, starchier texture and sweet, nutty flavor of Japanese yams makes them the perfect ingredient for latkes. Their deep purple hue combined with the deep orange of the sweet potatoes made these latkes a thing of beauty and so incredibly delicious.
We contrasted the crispy sweetness of the latkes with two dips. One is an addictive Muhammarra sauce, made with jarred roasted bell peppers and walnuts and flavored with pomegranate molasses, fresh garlic and cayenne pepper. The other is a fresh tzatziki dip prepared with strained Greek yogurt, sour cream, finely chopped cucumbers, dill and mint.
We hope you try these recipes and top your latkes with some crumbled Feta Cheese and raise a toast to the indomitable spirit of Judith and the Jewish people.
Sweet potato latkes
1/2 lb sweet potato, peeled and grated
1/2 lb Japanese yam, peeled and grated
1 red onion, grated
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup vegetable oil
3 baby carrots
- In a large bowl, mix together the sweet potato, yam, onion, flour, egg, salt and pepper.
- In a large deep skillet, warm oil over high heat until oil is boiling.
- Add the baby carrots to the oil (to absorb burnt particles in the oil during the frying process).
- Using an ice cream scooper, scoop the sweet potato mixture and flatten into your palm, then drop into the hot oil.
- Reduce heat to medium and fry until golden, about 1 1/2 minutes. Flip and fry another 1 1/2 minutes.
- Transfer latkes to a plate lined with paper towels or a paper bag.
- Serve hot.
1 cup walnuts
½ cup breadcrumbs
1 12-14 ounce jar of roasted red bell pepper, drained
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
1 clove of garlic
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon salt
- In a small pan, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat, add walnuts and toast for 3 minutes. Then transfer to a dish and let cool completely.
- In the same pan, toast the breadcrumbs until they become golden, stirring to make sure they do not burn. Transfer to a plate to cool.
- Place all the ingredients into a food processor and blend to a smooth paste.
- Chill before serving on top of latkes or as a dip.
1 cup full fat Greek yogurt
1/2 cup sour cream
1 English cucumber or 3 Persian cucumbers, finely diced
2 tablespoons finely chopped dill
1 tablespoon finely chopped mint
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 garlic clove, finely minced (optional)
- Strain the yogurt through a cloth or coffee filter for an hour.
- In a bowl add the yogurt, sour cream, cucumbers, dill, mint, salt and pepper. Add garlic, if desired.
- Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.
Larache is an important Atlantic port city in northwest Morocco, located at the mouth of the Loukkos River. Settled successively by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans, the ruins of ancient Lixus sit on the north bank of the River. The cityscape is dominated by two forts. The ancient Kebibat fortress rises out of the sea and the fort of La Cignogne was built by the Spaniards, who ruled Larache from 1610 to 1689 and from 1912 to 1956.
Rachel’s paternal grandfather, Salomon Emquies was the proprietor of a successful spice business in Larache. A devout man, he attended Shacharit prayer services every morning. Knowing that his youngest son Albert was loath to leave his warm bed at such an early hour, he would bribe him with the promise of buying freshly prepared sfenj after the prayers.
The Berber street vendor would stand in front of a vat of boiling oil; his hands would quickly form rings from the creamy, yeasty dough mix and drop them in the oil. Before young Albert could blink, the dough would puff up and turn a warm amber hue and the vendor would string the sfenj on a palm frond and tie it into a ring. After paying the equivalent of a few pennies, Albert would happily traipse home with the rustic doughnuts. At home for breakfast, the sfenj would be coated with a sprinkling of sugar or a warm honey syrup.
Sfenj are still a common, very popular street food all over Morocco. The recipe originated in Andalusia, Islamic Spain, where in the 12th century an Arabic poet proclaimed “The bakers of sfenj are worth as much as kings!” The name itself comes for the Arabic word for sponge, likely a reference to the light, airy texture of these irresistibly addictive treats.
While in Larache sfenj were an everyday affair, we think they are the perfect (pareve) treat for Hanukkah!
2 teaspoons yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 1/4 cup warm water
3 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
vegetable or peanut oil for frying
3-6 baby carrots
sugar, for dusting
- In a small bowl, add the yeast and sugar, then add the warm water, cover with a tea towel and allow to proof for 5 minutes.
- In a large bowl, mix the flour and salt. Add the yeast mixture and knead vigorously until smooth. The dough should be very sticky to knead.
- Cover the bowl and let the dough to rise for two hours, until it doubles or triples in size.
- In a wide pot, heat 1-2 inches of oil until piping hot. Add the carrots to absorb the burnt black crumbs and keep the oil clear.
- Fill a small bowl with water and set to the side. Line up the three prepared bowls: One with the dough, one with water, and a third with sugar.
- Prepare a cookie sheet with paper towel or a brown paper bag to absorb the oil.
- Dip hands in the water, then pull off a piece of dough about the size of a golf ball.
- Using your fingers make a hole in the dough and stretch into a ring.
- Drop it into the oil. Repeat with the remaining dough. Be careful not to crowd the pan.
- Fry them until golden brown, flipping a few times to make sure both sides are cooked well.
- Remove from oil using two forks, and place on the tray
- Once the oil has been absorbed, roll them in the sugar mixture before they cool off.
- Best when eaten right away.
Rachel Sheff and Sharon Gomperts have been friends since high school. They love cooking and sharing recipes. They have collaborated on Sephardic Educational Center projects and community cooking classes. Follow them on Instagram @sephardicspicegirls and on Facebook at Sephardic Spice SEC Food. Website: sephardicspicegirls.com/full-recipes