Disclaimer: I’m not affiliated with any specific products mentioned in this post, I just happen to really like them!
Well surprise, surprise! Original latkes—what we American Ashkenazi Jews know as shredded and fried potato fritters—were actually made from cheese. Their inspiration comes from Judith’s murder of Holofernes, a story associated with Hanukkah in Medieval Mediterranean Europe.
Judith was a beautiful widow and her city was under assault from Assyrian forces. She and her maid went to Holofernes, the leader of the Assyrians, and she treated him to salty cheese and wine. When he passed out from drinking so much alcohol, Judith and her maid cut off Holofernes’s head and the Israelites attacked the leaderless invading army. The Israelites won.
Cristofano Allori, Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1613), or as I call it, “Judith Unbothered.”
But what about latkes? Thanks to Judith’s story, many European Jews ate dairy for Hanukkah. After Spanish invaders expelled Jews from Sicily in 1492, Jewish Sicilians brought their ricotta cheese pancakes to northern Italy—where they were called cassola in Rome, and continue to be eaten as a Christmas dessert by non-Jewish Italians.
These cassola-inspired cheese latkes have historic inspiration with modern American Ashkenazi Jewish taste. Ricotta, a dairy product made from leftover whey created by cheese production, is still the base. While modern cassole cook more like cheesecakes or frittatas, these latkes are more like American pancakes: light and fluffy, with the sweet cassola flavors of citrus, spices, and vanilla. I would serve these as a Hanukkah dessert with honey (and maybe some nuts), applesauce, or fruit preserves. My husband suggested these would make an excellent breakfast with maple syrup or cinnamon sugar.
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A schmear of raspberry jam and these ricotta fritters tread a fine line between dessert and breakfast.
Makes about 15 latkes
15 ounces whole milk ricotta
3 large eggs
⅓ cup granulated sugar
Zest of 1 orange (about 2 tablespoons)
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon vanilla extract, optional
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Olive oil, for frying
- In a large bowl, mix together the ricotta, eggs, sugar, zest, cinnamon, vanilla extract if using, and salt. Stir in the flour and baking powder until a thick pancake batter forms. This can also be done in a food processor.
- Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to a nonstick skillet and heat over medium heat. Add 1 heaping tablespoon of batter at a time, spreading it out slightly as it hits the skillet. You should be able to fit 3 pancakes, each 3-4 inches wide and ¼ inch tall, in one 12 inch skillet.
- Fry for 2-3 minutes on each side until the latkes are golden brown. You’ll want to check that the first one is cooked through and adjust your heat accordingly; if it’s underdone, lower the heat slightly. Continue to add olive oil every 2 batches or so as it disappears for better browning.
- Place on paper towel lined plates to drain. Serve warm as is, or with preferred accoutrements.