For probably no reason beyond proximity on the calendar, Hanukkah and Christmas tend to get lumped together. Traditionally, the holidays actually have little in common.
But one shared tradition - and one that has become even more so as lines have blurred - is the exchange of gifts. But with one important distinction. Whereas Christmas is celebrated on one day, Hanukkah stretches over eight. As a result, the gifts tend to be smaller. Treats and other food gifts are particularly popular during the Jewish festival of lights.
Favorite Hanukkah treats include chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil (called gelt), as well as cookies in the shapes of menorahs and dreidels often decorated in blue, white, silver or gold, common colors for the holiday. Also popular are rugelach, bite-sized crescent pastries filled with nuts, chocolate, marzipan or fruit preserves.
Giving - and consuming - yeasty jelly-filled doughnuts called sufganiyot, which are fried in the oil that is so symbolically important to Hanukkah, is a tradition with Israeli roots, but is becoming more popular in the U.S., says Laura Frankel, a food educator and executive chef at the Spertus Center for Jewish Learning & Culture in Chicago.
But she favors another - more American - Hanukkah tradition, the giving of pretzels that have been dipped in chocolate and other toppings.
She and her pastry chef husband started by making them with their children, but then Frankel extended the family fun by teaching children at local schools to make the salty treats as a way to share the story of Hanukkah.
"It's great fun because the kids love making the dough into all kinds of shapes," says Frankel. "And it's a food activity you can actually let them do, unlike frying latkes or sufganiyot in hot oil."
Though Frankel's own children now are adults, she still goes to the schools to spread Hanukkah pretzel love each year.
The kids especially love the chocolate dipping part, says Frankel, and topping them with sugary blue and white sprinkles. And homemade pretzels make great gifts for adults as well, especially when enveloped in good chocolate, perhaps even dusted with a bit of edible gold leaf.
GILDED CHOCOLATE-DIPPED HANUKKAH PRETZELS
The tradition of eating pretzels during the Jewish festival of lights is a relatively new one. The pretzels often are shaped to resemble Hanukkah symbols, such as menorahs and dreidels. This version from cookbook author Laura Frankel gives the tradition a deluxe twist with a coating of dark chocolate and a dusting of gold leaf (available at craft and baking supply shops).
Start to finish: 2 hours 15 minutes
1 1/2 cups warm (110 F) water
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 packet active dry yeast
22 ounces (about 4 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour
1/4 cup canola, vegetable or other neutral oil, plus extra for the pan
2/3 cup baking soda
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon cool water
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate
Edible gold leaf
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the warm water, sugar and kosher salt. Sprinkle the yeast on top and allow to sit for 5 minutes, or until the mixture begins to foam.
Add the flour and 1/4 cup of oil and, using the dough hook attachment, mix on low speed until well combined. Increase speed to medium and knead until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the sides of the bowl, about 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the dough from the bowl and transfer to a lightly oiled bowl. Cover with a towel and allow to stand in a warm place and rise for 1 hour.
Once the dough has risen, heat the oven to 450 F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and lightly brush with the oil.
In an 8-quart saucepan or roasting pan over medium-high heat, combine 10 cups of water and the baking soda. Bring to a boil.
While the water heats, turn the dough out onto a slightly oiled work surface and divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll out each piece into a 24-inch rope. To form the pretzels, make each rope into a U-shape. Holding the ends of the rope, fold them downward and cross them over each other to create the classic pretzel shape. Gently press the ends of the ropes into the bottom of the "U." Arrange the finished pretzels on the prepared baking sheets.
Carefully, and working in batches to avoid crowding the pan, transfer the pretzels to the boiling water. Boil for 30 seconds. Use a large flat spatula or slotted spoon to transfer the pretzels back to the baking sheet.
When all of the pretzels have been boiled, in a small cup whisk the egg yolk and cool water. Brush each pretzel with the yolk mixture, then sprinkle with pretzel salt. Bake until dark golden brown, about 12 to 14 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack for at least 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a double boiler, melt the chocolate. Transfer the chocolate to a plastic bag, then use scissors to snip off one corner. Gently squeeze the bag to drizzle the chocolate over the cooled pretzels. After the chocolate has set, gild the pretzels with edible gold leaf according to package directions.
Nutrition information per serving: 470 calories; 160 calories from fat (34 percent of total calories); 17 g fat (5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 25 mg cholesterol; 72 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 9 g sugar; 10 g protein; 960 mg sodium.
(Recipe from Laura Frankel)