Casale Monferrato, a town deep in the wine country of Piedmont, Italy, made our Hanukkah latkes sing.
It wasn't the recipes from the slim cookbook of the community's Jews. Nor did we buy a local ingredient there, like truffles, that would make our latkes stand out.
But we left the exquisite Sinagoga degli Argenti there with an indelible memory. And Jewish foods invested with a story make the holidays taste richer.
In the 18th century, when Jews were forced into a ghetto around the synagogue, contacts between Jews and Catholics were limited, and at night they were strictly forbidden. Not until 1848 were the Jews of Piedmont granted full rights.
Today the basement of the synagogue museum, where matzoh once was baked for all the Jews of the Monferrato region, now houses the Museum of Lights, a remarkable collection of menorahs. The museum commissions new hanukkiyot from renowned contemporary artists, Jewish and non-Jewish, who, in the museum's words, "form a bridge between the lights of the past, which must never go out, and those of the future, which must continue to be lit." One menorah is formed of two sculpted hands, the thumbs entwined to form the shamash, the flames shooting up from the fingertips; another was inspired by the notes people insert into the cracks of the Western Wall.
In the courtyard, our guide told us that for the past several years, the synagogue has invited members of all the other monotheistic faiths in the area when Hanukkah begins. A Hanukkah story--a miracle too, perhaps--that has particular resonance for Casale.
For it would be dark, of course, when the Catholics, Muslims, Protestants, and Jews gathered to light the menorah candles here between the elegant colonnaded courtyard columns--where once upon a time any contact between Jews and Gentiles after nightfall would have been prohibited.
"Hanukkah," as Antonio Recalcati, one of the Catholic menorah
artists has said, "celebrates life and light after centuries of darkness."
The oil in those menorahs is commemorated on the table with rich meats, like brisket and goose, and above all, with fried foods. And the most popular of these is, of course, the potato latke.
The four-sided grater my grandmother used years ago offered an advantage (aside from the bits of torn knuckles so many grandmothers swore made their latkes that much more delicious): part of the potatoes could be shredded on the coarse side, to make a crispy crust, and the rest grated rather fine, to ensure a little creamy layer within. All coarse would mean all crunch--texture without an intense potato taste--while completely fine made latkes with too much mush beneath their thin crisp coat, causing them to absorb huge amounts of oil.
The solution is simple: using a food processor, grate the potatoes, using the coarse shredding disk, then process about one third of them to a coarse puree. Result: crisp, crunchy, and creamy, all at once.
Olive oil was the original oil used in the ancient Temple, and I love the flavor a fragrant, everyday olive oil lends to the latkes. But you can use canola or peanut oil too.