Adding chocolate to a Passover nut torte in Germany...including red snapper in a Mexico City gefilte fish at Rosh Hashanah...serving collard greens with griebenes (poultry skin cracklings) for a Sabbath dinner in the American South-Jews have always upgraded their beloved holiday foods using new ingredients and cooking methods as they became available. Yes, even the iconic Hanukkah potato latke was once a brash arriviste: before the New World tuber became popular in Eastern Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, the potato pancake had to fight for a place at the table among the old-timers: the latkes made of cheese and buckwheat.
After all, potchkehing with tradition is what prevents Jewish ritual from becoming rote and recipes from turning stale. And foods sometimes need a spark for today's palates.
Brown butter is a perfect spark for Hanukkah menus. A simple truc of many contemporary chefs and home cooks alike, using brown butter lends depth and nuance to both sweet and savory dishes where butter is called for either in its liquid or solid state. As you heat butter, its milk sugars caramelize, turning a rich golden brown, with a seductive, warm, nutty aroma and complex darker notes. In sweet dishes, it suggests butterscotch. The brown color and nutty flavor give the butter its French name, beurre noisette, hazelnut butter.
All well and good, you're thinking-but why for Hanukkah? Well, many Jews eat dairy foods on the holiday because of its association with Judith. The clever and beautiful (aren't they always?) widow purportedly fed the evil Holofernes with plenty of salty cheese so he would have to quench his thirst with copious quantities of wine and fall into a drunken stupor. Judith then beheaded him, and impaled the offensive noggin, scaring off his troops and thus ending the siege he had imposed on her people.
But there's another reason too. Although on Hanukkah they eat latkes, bimuelos, and other foods fried in oil to commemorate the single cruse of sanctified olive oil that burned for eight days when the Maccabees reclaimed the Temple, Jews around the world have also relied on other kinds of fat to symbolize the oil, such as schmaltz (poultry fat) and butter, as well as fatty meats like brisket and goose.
So in many families, lighting the menorah is a time for buttery treats like rugelach, buttered egg noodles, blintzes, crepes, and even waffles. When you substitute brown butter for the plain kind in the recipes, you really amp up the flavor of these homey dishes. They'll still have the taste of Hanukkah, but this time, with some of that holiday miracle added too.