Food & Drink

Jewish cookbook author offers healthier Hanukkah cuisine

Chanukah dreidel cookies
Chanukah dreidel cookies Thomas Dunne Books

For gluten-free gourmands or anyone on a diet, trying to avoid the deep-fried grainy goodness of doughnuts and latkes during Hanukkah might feel like eight days of fasting, not feasting.

Behold this season’s miracle, British chef Denise Phillips. The chef-turned-caterer says it was a “quest to improve the quality of Jewish cooking” that led her to become a “leading name in modern Jewish cooking with style” and a veteran cookbook author

Phillips’ latest cookbook, published in August, The Gourmet Jewish Cookbook (Thomas Dunne, $29.99), features more than 200 Jewish recipes from around the world. All of her recipes put a spin on “kosher classics,” and most can be labeled as healthy. Gluten-free, dairy-free, diabetic-friendly and Parev are just a few of the labels Phillips uses to help cooks choose recipes according to their dietary guidelines.

Labels for each major Jewish holy day — Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, Shavot, Succot and Shabbat — help cooks choose recipes according to the holiday. Hanukkah, a lesser Jewish festival, begins Tuesday evening and ends Dec. 24.

Even the most orthodox of cooks will appreciate the culinary history included at the top of each recipe page. The book also comes with a companion app offering more than 500 recipes, a collection Phillips is constantly growing (Jewish Cookery Recipe Collection, $5.99). For each download purchased, Phillips donates $2 to Meir Panim, a nonprofit that organizes Israeli soup kitchens and other programs for the needy.

We chatted recently with Phillips about how to make gluten-free Hanukkah recipes, and we learned a thing or two about frying with healthy oils, substituting recipes with gluten-free flours, and serving it all with a side of style.

Why is oil in every recipe?

We celebrate the fact that the oil in the temple that was supposed to last for only one day lasted miraculously for eight days, so all Hanukkah recipes are related to oil.

It’s not a health issue if you use the right oil. I’ve written a different feature each season on which oils to use. I’ve done truffle oil in the past. Most recently, I’ve written about how coconut oil is very good for you and can be used in certain recipes. That and rapeseed oil can be very good for you.

I think our rapeseed oil goes by another name in the States: canola oil.

And it’s better for frying because it has a low-burning point and is low in cholesterol. Basically, it’s on par with extra-virgin olive oil, which is beautiful in risottos and what not, but you would never fry anything with olive oil. The flavor of rapeseed oil isn’t too overpowering and it makes the food turn crispier.

Should we try your beet latkes in rapeseed or canola oil then?

Yes, and those are a very traditional Hanukkah dish.

But, why the beets?

It is very Ashkenazi. Essentially, there are two main types of Jews: the Ash coming from northern European countries, like Poland, Russia and Lithuania, and Sephardi Jews coming from other parts of the world, like Spain and Morocco.

When you’ve got the Ashkenazi cuisine from a cold climate, you get ingredients like beets. The cuisine from a hot climate of many Sephardi Jews is different. My relatives came from Russia, and beets are very predominant there, so it’s used in a lot of our cuisine. The potatoes are the more traditional latke ingredient, but I’ve done this modern twist since beets are one of those superfoods that have a good amount of iron and are high in vitamins.

Will you be serving any of the recipes you’ve shared with us?

So on a Tuesday night, the 16th of December, our festival starts, and at about half past 3 or 4 o’clock we’ll start with a tea time. Probably the biscuits, I’ll have.

The biscuits?

I mean the dreidel cookies. We call them biscuits here. That and the olive oil bread would go well with your tea time or something to serve while giving gifts or playing spinning top games with the dreidel. The dreidel cookies have the Hebrew letters I’ve put as a decoration with the sprinkles to look like the dreidel letters. (Recipe follows.)

Is that decorating technique pretty advanced?

No, you just pipe the icing sugar on and then you can drizzle all over with … you call it sprinkles? Yes, and then the sprinkles set in the icing sugar.

What do Brits call sprinkles?

Hundreds and thousands. Sprinkles sometimes.

Really? So how can we make the dreidel cookies and that delicious-looking olive oil bread completely gluten-free?

Most any other gluten-free flour would work well with any of my recipes. Flour is only used as a binding agent to keep ingredients together.

So do you recommend almond flour or another type of gluten-free flour?

We have a particular brand called Dove Flour. It’s gluten-free flour, but it doesn’t specify the type of flour used. It just works quite well.

And the olive oil cake is sort of different with the polenta and pine nuts that give it a bit of texture and crunch that’s really lovely and colorful. It’s not too rich and full of butter and cream, so not to worry in that respect.

It almost reminds me a Christmas fruitcake, but it looks much tastier.

It’s got a bit of apricot, but not nearly as much fruit. So not as much sugar is used overall. I would say it’s a lot healthier and a lot lighter. A fruitcake can be pretty heavy.

Oh, heavy indeed.

There are heavier, creamier recipes in the book and the app, like mint-chocolate cheesecake and coffee-toffee cupcakes. There are more doughnuts and latkes, and loukoumas that Sephardi Jews make, which are like deep-fried pastries coated in honey and sesame seeds with syrup.

And for all the prep work, do you have any advice?

You can present your guests with Jewish recipes that have style without cooking on the actual day. You can freeze a lot of these recipes or store them.

So make them ahead of time, add some garnish, enjoy your day, and don’t forget to wish everyone Happy Hanukkah!

Olive oil, dried apricot and pistachio cake

Makes 1 loaf

Olive oil and polenta combined with lemon and dried apricots work well to produce a light-textured, yellowy cake. To add a final shine before serving, glaze with a little extra olive oil, the authentic Hanukkah way.

▪ 1 cup shelled pistachio nuts

▪ 4 eggs

▪ 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

▪ 3/4 cup sugar

▪ 1 teaspoon baking powder

▪ 1 cup fine polenta

▪ Zest and juice of 1/2 lemon

▪ Pinch of salt

▪ 1 cup dried apricots, roughly chopped

1. Pulse the pistachios in a food processor until fine and powderlike.

2. Using an electric beater, whisk the eggs. Then add the olive oil slowly, beating continuously until you have a thick emulsion.

3. Beat in the sugar and baking powder. Then fold in the pistachio paste, the polenta, the lemon zest, juice and the salt.

4. Stir in the chopped apricots.

5. Pour the mixture into a loaf tin lined with baking paper

6. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour or until golden brown on top and springy.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 405 calories, 25 grams fat, 40 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams protein, 71 milligrams cholesterol, 77 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber, 55 percent of calories from fat.

Beet latkes

Makes 30 servings

Raw fresh beets make excellent latkes. The secret of their success, like all latkes, is to make sure that the oil is hot before you start frying. This ensures crisp and crunchy fritters that the whole family will love.

▪ 1 1/2 pounds raw red beets, peeled

▪ 2 small onions, peeled and grated

▪ 1/2-pound potato, peeled and coarsely grated

▪ 2 tablespoons tahini paste

▪ 1 cup plain all-purpose flour

▪ 1/2 cup porridge oats

▪ 2 eggs, beaten

▪ 1 tablespoon ground cilantro

▪ 1 tablespoon fresh dill

▪ Salt and pepper to taste

▪ Oil for cooking

Optional dressing and garnish:

▪ 1 tablespoon horseradish sauce

▪ 6 tablespoons sour cream

▪ 1 tablespoon fresh dill

▪ 1 cup smoked salmon, cut into small pieces

▪ 1 lemon, cut into slices

▪ Sprigs of dill

1. Combine the first three dressing ingredients together. Set aside.

2. Scrub the beets thoroughly, and then grate them coarsely.

3. Using a clean tea cloth or kitchen paper, squeeze out any excess liquid from the grated onions and grated potato. Now add this to the grated beets. Transfer to a bowl and mix well.

4. Season the mixture, then stir in the tahini, flour, oats, eggs, coriander, dill and salt and pepper to taste.

5. Warm a shallow film of oil in a nonstick skillet. Carefully drop generous spoonfuls of the beet mixture into the oil, flattening down with the back of the spoon as you go. Leave them to cook over moderate heat for a couple of minutes, until just starting to crisp a little, then with the help of a palette knife or fish slice, turn them over quickly and cook the other side.

6. Remove from the pan and drain on kitchen paper.

To serve the stylish way: add a small spoonful of dressing and a slice of smoked salmon on top of the latkes. Garnish with fresh dill and a slice of lemon.

Nutritional analysis per serving, without dressing and garnish: 80 calories, 4 grams fat, 9 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 14 milligrams cholesterol, 19 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber and 43 percent of calories from fat.

Nutritional analysis per serving of dressing and garnish: 13 calories, 1 gram fat, trace carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 3 milligrams cholesterol, 39 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber and 66 percent of calories from fat.

Orange Hanukkah dreidel cookies

Makes 60 cookies

The dreidel is one of the best-known games during Hanukkah. This four-sided spinning top has four letters: Shin, Hey, Gimmel and Nun. These letters mean “A great miracle happened there.” Each letter has a fate: Nun means nothing happens, and the next player spins the dreidel; Gimmel takes all the tokens in the pot; Hey takes half the pot; and on Shin the player must put one token in the pot. As well as playing the dreidel game with chocolate Hanukkah gelt, why not play with these Hanukkah cookies!

▪ 1/2 cup margarine or unsalted butter

▪ 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

▪ 1 egg

▪ 1 tablespoon grated orange zest

▪ 1 cup ground Brazil nuts, ground in a food processor

▪ 1 cup all-purpose plain flour

▪ 1/4 teaspoon baking powder

▪ 1 teaspoon almond extract


▪ Colored icing

▪ Colored sprinkles

1. In a food processor, cream together butter or margarine with sugar until light and fluffy.

2. Stir in the egg, orange zest, and ground Brazil nuts.

3. Sift together flour and baking powder. Add to the creamed mixture. Mix well. Stir in almond extract.

4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

5. Roll out dough 1/4 inch thick on a lightly floured board. Cut into dreidel shapes or other desired shapes.

6. Bake on a tray lined with nonstick baking parchment paper for 15 minutes.

7. When cool, pipe a selection of Hebrew letters on the cookies. Drop sprinkles on top of icing and lightly press, if necessary, so sprinkles stick.

Can be frozen or stored in an airtight container for up to 4 days.

Nutritional analysis per cookie: 39 calories, 3 grams fat, 2 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 4 milligrams cholesterol, 21 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber and 71 percent of calories from fat.

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