The Jewish Experience

German Jewish Hanukkah Desserts

A plate full of potato pancakes (latkes)

Nov. 17, 2021

Historically, German Jews didn't wait around until Hanukkah to have potato pancakes (latkes).

They were prepared and eaten all year round, which gave household cooks lots of time to practice for the holiday. In other words, German Jews really knew what they were doing.

On the other hand, krokerle, spiced chocolate hazelnut cookies, were a Hanukkah treat. So were knieküchlein, or knee doughnuts, so-called because women gathered in groups and stretched the dough over their knees before frying them.

These and other recipes are collected in "The German-Jewish Cookbook" by Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman '59 and Sonya Gropman, which mines hundreds of years of German Jewish history for culinary delicacies. It was published in 2017 by Brandeis University Press.

Ess gezunterheit! (Yiddish for bon appétit)

Potato Pancakes (Reibekuchen)

¼ cup white vinegar
1 cup water
5 pounds russet potatoes
1 medium to large onion
2 medium eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup neutral-flavored oil
Applesauce, lingonberries, sour cream and/or crème fraîche, as accompaniment

1. Combine the vinegar and water in a large mixing bowl.

2. Wash and peel the potatoes. Grate the potatoes either in a food processor or with a box grater.

If you are using a food processor: Cut the potatoes into 1-inch pieces. Use the steel blade. Place enough pieces into the bowl of the processor to just reach the top of the blade.

Pulse for 30 seconds or so. There should be finely grated potato without any large pieces remaining. Spoon or pour the grated potato directly into the bowl with the vinegar water and continue with the remaining potatoes until they have all been grated.

If you are using a box grater: Leave the potatoes whole. Use the side of the box grater with the second-to-smallest hole size to grate all the potatoes into the bowl with the vinegar water.

3. Working in batches, pour some of the grated potato into a muslin bag, onto a flat cotton kitchen towel or onto several layers of cheesecloth cut into 18-inch lengths or folded and layered on top of each other.

Twist the top of the muslin bag or gather the ends of the kitchen towel or cheesecloth together and twist, squeezing the fabric to press out as much water as possible. Put the potatoes into a clean, large bowl and process the remaining potatoes in the same fashion.

4. Grate the onion in the same manner as the potatoes, using a food processor or a box grater, and add the grated onion to the bowl of potatoes.

5. Add the eggs, salt and flour to the potatoes and mix thoroughly, using your hands or a wooden spoon.

6. Line a plate with paper towels, and set aside. Preheat the oven to the "warm" setting or the lowest setting on your oven.

7. Heat the oil in a 9- or 10-inch frying pan set over high heat. Drop a tiny bit of potato batter into the pan; if it sizzles immediately, the oil is ready.

Form pancakes by placing a heaping tablespoon of the potato mixture in your hand. Pat it down with your other hand to form a pancake approximately 3 inches across. Carefully place it in the oil.

Repeat, cooking 4 or 5 pancakes at a time. When the pancakes become golden brown on the first side, in 3 to 5 minutes, carefully flip them with a spatula, slotted if you have one, and fry them on the other side.

Fry until the second side is golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Put the fried pancakes on the paper towel-lined plate to absorb the grease, and keep them warm in the oven. Continue frying the remaining potato mixture in batches, keeping the finished pancakes warm in the oven.

8. Serve immediately with any combination of the accompaniments.

Knee Doughnuts (Knieküchlein)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 cups (1.1 pound) all-purpose flour
¾ cup whole milk, divided
1 envelope (2¼ teaspoons) active dry yeast
½ teaspoon plus ½ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, beaten
Zest of 1 lemon, preferably organic
Pinch of salt
4 cups neutral-flavored oil
Confectioners' sugar, for decorating

1. Melt the butter in a pot over low heat or in the microwave. Set aside and let cool.

2. Put the flour in a shallow bowl or on a large board. Make a well in the center.

3. Warm ¼ cup of the milk in a small pot over very low heat on the stove (or for 15 seconds in a microwave) until it is barely lukewarm (when you can comfortably dip your knuckle into it). In a small bowl, combine the yeast, lukewarm milk and ½ teaspoon of the sugar.

Stir to wet the yeast. When it begins to bubble, place it in the well of the flour and wait for it to bubble vigorously, which may take up to 10 minutes.

4. Add the remaining ½ cup milk to the cooled, melted butter.

5. When the yeast is bubbling vigorously, add the milk and butter mixture, beaten egg, ½ cup sugar, lemon zest and salt to the well in the flour. Mix all the ingredients together until everything is incorporated.

6. Knead the dough with your hands. It will be very gooey at first, but push the dough off your fingers and continue blending until the dough becomes firmer and you are able to form it into a ball.

Move the dough to a floured board (if it is not already there) and knead by repeatedly pushing with your palms and folding the sides of the dough up. The dough will be ready when it is springy, and you can form a smooth ball.

7. Flour a flat surface, such as a wooden board. Pull small pieces of dough off the large ball, and form golf ball–size balls (1½ inches across). Place them on the floured surface. When all the dough has been used (about 24 balls in total), cover with a damp kitchen towel and place in a warm spot to rise.

You can preheat your oven to its lowest setting (about 175 °F), turn off the oven, and then place the dough in the oven with the door slightly ajar. Other options are to put the dough on a warm radiator or even under a table lamp. Let the balls of dough rise and double in size, about 1 hour.

8. When the balls of dough have doubled in size, take one ball at a time and pull it over your knee (or fist), stretching the center until it is thin, leaving a raised rim all around (something like a Frisbee). Alternatively, lay the ball on a flat surface and stretch the center, leaving a raised rim all around. Continue to shape all the balls and lay the finished doughnuts on a plate.

9. Heat the oil in a 2- or 3-quart pot. You need about 2 inches of oil in the pot — don't use a pot that is too large, or the oil will be too shallow. The oil is ready when a tiny piece of dough thrown into the pot immediately sizzles and browns.

10. Pick up the doughnuts one at a time with kitchen tongs, and drop each into the oil. When the bottom of the doughnut turns golden brown — which will take less than a minute — turn it and brown the second side. As the oil continues to get hotter, the doughnuts will fry quicker, so keep your eye on them.

When a doughnut is done, remove it from the oil and drain on a plate lined with paper towels. When drained of oil, move the doughnuts to a second, clean plate, and sprinkle confectioners' sugar through a fine sieve on top. Continue frying all the doughnuts.

11. Serve as soon as possible after frying.

Spiced Chocolate Hazelnut Cookies (Krokerle)

Makes 45 to 65 cookies

Neutral-flavored oil for greasing the pan, if needed
8 ounces hazelnuts
4 large eggs
1½ cups granulated sugar
2¾ cups all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cloves, cinnamon, or nutmeg or a combination
¼ cup Dutch-process cocoa
2 ounces brandy or whiskey

Lemon glaze
1½ cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
1½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Making the cookies
1. Preheat the oven to 350 °F. Line 3 baking sheets with parchment paper or grease with neutral-flavored oil.

2. Spread the hazelnuts on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for about 10 minutes, or until you start to smell them. Be careful not to let them burn. Immediately remove them from the oven and spread on a clean kitchen towel.

Wrap the four corners of the towel over the top and let sit for a few minutes — the steam will help loosen the nut skins. Roll the nuts around in the towel — most of the nuts will become skinless. Coarsely chop and set aside.

3. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs and granulated sugar until light and foamy.

4. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, spices and cocoa. Stir the dry ingredients into the egg and sugar mixture. Add the brandy and the nuts, and stir to combine.

5. Drop by teaspoonfuls or tablespoonfuls onto the prepared baking sheets, 2 inches apart. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until lightly browned. Remove from the oven and place on a rack to cool.

Making the glaze

6. Combine the confectioners' sugar and lemon juice in a small bowl and stir until smooth. Add a drop of water if the glaze is too thick.

7. While the cookies are still warm, drizzle each one with a small spoonful of glaze.

Let cool.