Frying things at home is a nuisance. It makes the entire house smell.
When you fry anything with oil, like a piece of fish, you get into bed (hours later) and stink. When I was growing up in Pittsburgh, we had a big German Shepherd, and whenever we fried potato pancakes, he smelled like them for a week.
My wife is not Jewish, so we celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah.
As a result, I have instilled the Jewish Christmas Eve, which means that we eat in Chinatown, or we'll order Asian take-out and head to her family's house, which is right outside of Philadelphia. The Chinatown scene is really good in Philadelphia. It's not huge, but there are definitely some big winners around here. I don't know where we're going to go this year, but often we visit Sang Kee—a Peking duck house—or Tai Lake, which has the most amazing clams sautéed with ground pork. Jewish Christmas (at the Chinese restaurant) always involves ordering hand-pulled noodles, Peking duck, Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce, and dumplings, obviously.
On Christmas Day, we go to her family's house and sort of sit around in pajamas and bathrobes and eat delicious things by a fire. I was always a little bit grossed out by the idea of the Christmas Meal before I started celebrating it with her and her family because I thought it involved hams with pineapple and shit on it. It seems like everybody has Thanksgiving over and over again at Christmas and serves turkey. Again. But then you add ham. I never celebrated Christmas until I met her, so this is my idea of Christmas.
During Hannukah, my family fries potato pancakes, or we eat excessive amounts of jelly doughnuts. This year, my wife is going to make potato pancakes in our little apartment. And at Zahav, we're cooking a Hanukkah-inspired meal that involves a lot of confit-ing in olive oil, or putting fried onions on things.
Potato pancakes are undeniably iconic in terms of Hanukkah. They are Ashkenazi, but everyone has their version of that. Sephardic potato pancakes have spices like turmeric or cumin, which are very good. And jelly doughnuts are a big one. I think that transcends any kind of "Sephardic" or "Ashkenazi" talk—it's just kind of what everybody eats. Sephardic cooking is of Spanish descent but also means kind of Middle Eastern or Eastern. And Ashkenazi is European, and—in a way—North American. One tastes Middle Eastern, and one tastes like it was born out of a New York deli.
Real Sephardic cooking is essentially old-school Spanish, so not even for Hannukah, but just like in general, they make sofrito, which is typically braised meat dishes that have dried fruits and root vegetables with stewed meat. They'll also take potatoes and fry them really hard, and put them in the stew and braise them, so there's a lot of texture going on—not just mushy potato. I like to do that kind of cooking for Hanukkah so that it's not just potato pancakes and jelly doughnuts on the table.
I'm a simple man. I don't like a lot of crazy shit on my doughnuts, whether it's Hanukkah or any other day of the year. I like cinnamon sugar. But there's two things I think you should look for in determining a quality doughnut: for a soft and sort of crispy one, it should have the contrast between the interior and exterior crust, and an unctuous middle. If it's a yeast doughnut, it should be really light and porous; if it's a cake one, it should be super creamy.
If you fry it in your house, it will smell like Hanukkah long-after the holiday has ended.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2014.