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Dairy foods aren’t immediately associated with Hanukkah, but Syrian Jews prepare delicious cheese-filled pancakes called atayef for the Festival of Lights. These filled, syrup-soaked delicacies honor Judith, an unlikely heroine, whose story is customarily read during Hanukkah.
In the apocryphal Book of Judith, we read that in his quest to conquer Judea, an Assyrian warrior named Holofernes besieged the town of Bethulia. Though Bethulia’s elders were ready to surrender, Judith, a widow, entered the Assyrian camp and gave Holofernes salty cheese to make him thirsty and wine to make him drunk. After he became intoxicated, she seized his sword and beheaded him, bringing the head back to her village in a basket. The next morning when the Assyrian troops found the headless body of their leader, they fled in terror.
Though atayef are labor intensive, their delicate and delicious flavor is well worth the time spent in the kitchen. The rosewater syrup is an acquired taste; you can replace it with orange flower water for a different, but equally delicious flavor. Jennifer Abadi, a Syrian Jewish cook based in New York, made these pancakes with her grandmother, Fritzi, around Hanukkah time. She graciously shares the recipe here.
Atayef (stuffed Syrian pancakes)
Makes 48 pancakes
Adapted from A Fistful of Lentils (Harvard Common Press) by Jennifer Felicia Abadi.
For Rosewater Syrup:
3/4 cup cold water
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons rose water
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup cold water
1/2 cup whole milk
3 heaping tablespoons dried cream of rice cereal
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon rose water (optional)
1 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 cups plus 1 1/2 tablespoons lukewarm water
2 cups vegetable oil
Make the Syrup:
Bring the water and sugar to a boil in a medium saucepan. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 12-15 minutes, until liquid thickens slightly. Remove from heat and immediately stir in rosewater and lemon juice. Cool, then transfer to an airtight container. Refrigerate until very cold, for 5-6 hours or overnight. Keeps for up to 1 month in the refrigerator.
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