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The foods of the Festival of Lights

Hanukkah, a Jewish festival lasting eight days in December (this year beginning in the evening on December 18 to December 26), commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in 165 B.C. by the Maccabees. Tradition dictates that Hanukkah is celebrated with a spread of fried foods in commemoration of the miraculous oil that provided the victorious Maccabees with eight days of light. Hanukkah is filled with many beautiful traditions, including some wonderful food. Although fried foods have a heavy presence in Hanukkah traditions, baked goods also play a significant role.  

Challah Bread 

This sweet or savory bread is a mainstay in the Jewish tradition. This bread is traditionally prepared weekly for the Jewish Sabbath. Jewish families will bake two loaves every week for Sabbath on Friday. Dalton Hirsh, a sophomore studying fermentation sciences and secretary of Purdue Hillel, explains that challah has always been a part of his family’s traditions, inspiring his love for baking. Purdue Hillel is a place to explore Judaism and Jewishness. Purdue Hillel’s mission is to enrich the lives of Jewish students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.

“Many kids will learn from their parents or grandparents how to make challah with recipes they have going back many generations,” Hirsh says.  

Hirsh goes on to explain that challah is an egg-based bread similar to brioche. It is a combination of dry flour, water, yeast and several egg yolks. One of the defining traits of challah bread is that it is typically braided.  Traditionally for the Sabbath the challah is an oval in a braid, but for holidays such as Rosh Hashanah, the challah is braided into a circle to symbolize the circular nature of life and the patterns of history.   

challah bread fresh from the oven Challah bread photo submitted by Dalton Hirsh, a sophomore studying fermentation sciences and secretary of Purdue Hillel.

The science behind challah bread

Steve Lindemann, associate professor in the Department of Food Science at Purdue, speaks to the science of challah. “Microbial fermentation is an essential part of all leavened breads, including challah. Yeast converts sugars in the bread into carbon dioxide, which causes gas pockets to form in the dough and helps develop a strong gluten network, giving us the airy texture desired in these breads.” He also explained that some of the more ancient foods we associate with the holidays and winter in general were also fermented. Mincemeat, for example, was a traditional mixture of fruits and meats that was fermented, presumably with lactic acid bacteria. “These generally derive from times when sugar was rarer – and far more expensive than today,” Lindemann said.


In many ways latkes are the star of the show for Hanukkah. Latkes, a Yiddish word for pancake, are potato pancakes that are fried in oil.  

“Because of the miracle relating to oil, we tend to eat a lot of fried foods over the holiday which is the main reason we eat a lot of latkes,” said Laura Harriss, a junior studying food safety and vice president of internal relations for Purdue Hillel. Harriss shares that there are many ways to top your latkes after it’s fried. “The top two topping options are applesauce and sour cream,” she says. “I personally prefer mine with sour cream.” 

Latkes fresh from the griddle Latkes photo submitted by Laura Harriss, a junior studying food safety and vice president of internal relations for Purdue Hillel.

The science behind latkes: 
Being a Purdue Food Science major, Harriss also spoke to the science behind the latkes and perfecting the recipe. “Potatoes have a really high water content which contributes greatly to the crispy outside of a latke,” Harriss said. “When you put the latke in the hot oil to fry it, the oil and water will have a strong reaction due to the polar properties of water and the non-polar properties of the oil. The higher the water content in the latke, the crispier it will be due to this strong reaction.”  

Sufganiyot (Doughnut) 

Sufganiyot are doughnuts generally filled with jelly. Sufganiyot are a traditional Hanukkah food because they are fried, helping to bring honor the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights.  

The science behind sufganiyot:  

Harriss explained that there is a lot of science going on in the Sufganiyot. Sufganiyot are yeast doughnuts, meaning they are leavened using yeast and that they go through the fermentation process. During fermentation, the yeast will consume the sugar in the dough and turn it into carbon dioxide making the dough airy. During frying, the doughnuts will turn brown due to the starch gelatinizing and the sugar and proteins going through the Maillard reaction, which is a chemical reaction that leads to the browning of molecules.  

Food Safety Tips for Holiday Foods  

Due to many of the popular Hanukkah foods being oil-based, it is important not to leave the oil unattended.  cooking-with-oil.jpg

The challah bread is often left out overnight to allow the fermentation to take place and for the yeast to rise. After being baked, the bread is safe to keep at room temperature for a few days or until you see visible mold appear. Typically, after a few days the bread will begin to go stale and lose its taste. The bread can often be repurposed in other recipes such as bread pudding, French toast, grilled cheese and more.  

 Food Science professor Haley Oliver shares a simple tip for keeping all foods safe this holiday season. “Please be kind to your leftovers and yourself.  Keep cold foods cold and refrigerate cooked foods within two hours to keep foods safe.”

“Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is so endlessly delicious.”

- Ruth Reichl

Aunt Minerva's Challah

6 ¾ cups of bread flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 eggs
¾ cups of oil
¾ cup + 2 tablespoons of lukewarm water with 2 tablespoons of yeast, dissolved
Mix dry ingredients together
Add in wet ingredients and yeast 
Knead. Let rise 1 hour, braid
Let rise another hour
Bake at 275 degrees fahrenheit for 50 minutes.
Check if done, then bake longer as needed
*Recipe shared by Dalton Hirsh

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