At the culinary heart of Hanukkah (which began Tuesday) are foods fried in oil to commemorate the triumph of the Maccabees, who won back their sacred temple, and the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days.
But there’s another Hanukkah story, not as well-known, that shifts the culinary narrative to a brave woman and her killer cheese. This story from the Book of Judith explains why dairy makes it onto the holiday table.
According to “The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible,” the Assyrian leader Nebuchadnezzar sent one of his generals, Holofernes, to destroy the Jews of Bethulia, a town that commanded access to the road to Jerusalem. The plan was to seize the spring at the foot of the mountain, so the Jews would be deprived of their water supply.
When the cisterns in the town were empty, the people began to lose heart. It seemed better to live as slaves than to die in vain. But one woman, a beautiful widow named Judith, had another plan.
She left Bethulia, dressed in festival garments and equipped with wine and food. The Assyrian guards, entranced, opened the gates of the city and escorted her up the hill to the enemy camp.
Pleased by her beauty and her wit, Holofernes invited Judith to a banquet in his tent. When his officers left him alone with her, the general ate the salty cheese cakes she had prepared and drank her wine. More cheese cakes, much more wine. Until he fell drunkenly asleep.
And then, Judith pulled out his sword, and cut off his head.
She left the camp without arousing suspicion, her maid carrying the head in a bag. When the threatening army saw their general’s head, they panicked and fled.
Many Jews honor Judith by eating cheese and dairy dishes: rugelach, blintzes, cheesecake, cheese latkes, even sour cream on potato latkes.
These traditional pastries symbolize the cheese cakes that Judith served to Holofernes.
An ingredient note: Farmer cheese is a form of cottage cheese with most of the liquid pressed out, giving it a solid, crumbly texture.
JUDITH’S CHEESE PASTRIES
Adapted from “A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking” by Marcy Goldman
- 2-1/2 cups flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 sticks (1 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into 16 pieces
- 1 cup farmer cheese (or substitute small-curd cottage cheese, well-drained)
- 2 teaspoons finely minced lemon zest
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 4 tablespoons melted butter
- Powdered sugar
- >> Filling
- 1/2 pound cream cheese
- 1/2 pound farmer cheese
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 1 teaspoon finely minced lemon zest
- 1 egg
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Pinch of salt
Sift together flour, salt, sugar and baking powder in a large bowl. Cut in butter until mixture resembles small crumbs. Blend in cheese to make a soft dough; then blend in lemon zest, lemon juice and vanilla. Wrap dough in plastic; refrigerate overnight.
To make filling: Cream the cream cheese, farmer cheese and sugar together in a bowl until blended. Stir in remaining ingredients to make a thick filling. Refrigerate until needed.
On a lightly floured surface, divide chilled dough in half and roll each half into a 9-by-12-inch rectangle. Lightly brush each rectangle with 1 tablespoon melted butter.
Spread half the filling over each rectangle, leaving a 1-inch border all around. Fold in the 2 shorter ends of each rectangle. Beginning with the longer side, roll each piece into a log but stop halfway. Cut off the remaining half of each piece and repeat, making another log. Each portion of dough will make 2 narrow logs, for a total of 4 logs.
Brush the tops of logs with remaining 2 tablespoons melted butter. Chill 10 to 15 minutes.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment.
Cut logs into 2-inch pastries. Place pastries on baking sheets. Bake until tops are golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool slightly, then dust with powdered sugar. Makes 24 to 30 pieces.
Approximate nutritional information, per piece: 179 calories, 12 g total fat, 7 g saturated fat, 39 mg cholesterol, 15 g carbohydrate, 7 g sugar, 4 g protein, 124 mg sodium, no fiber.