Hanukkah is right around the corner, and we all know the best thing about any holiday is the amazing food.
(And let's face it, you don't even have to be Jewish to appreciate crispy potato pancakes and melt-in-your-mouth challah French toast.)
Pinterest is full of a ton of Hanukkah cooking and food hacks — so I decided to test out nine of the most popular.
Here's how it all went!
HACK #1: Make the easiest latkes ever with frozen tater tots or hash browns.
THE IDEA: Latkes can be kinda tedious to make, and grating potatoes on a box grater can be a bit of an arm workout. The easiest alternative? Tater tot latkes. According to blogs like Wonder How To, you can use frozen tater tots or hash browns instead of fresh potatoes to make latkes. Just heat them up according to package directions and then mix them with cream cheese and some chopped scallions. Fry them in a skillet per usual, and you'll supposedly have delicious latkes the lazy way.
DID IT WORK? Definitely.
THE RESULTS: I used frozen hash browns from Trader Joe’s, so I only had to use about 5 frozen patties to make a big plate of latkes. The tater tot version didn’t taste exactly like traditional potato pancakes with their wispy, crisp edges and tender center. (They were much thicker and chewy all around.) But with a dollop of sour cream and chives on top, they were really tasty. After making regular latkes (as you’ll read about below), I can definitely see the appeal in skipping the potato grating and taking the easy way out.
HACK #2: Make no-knead challah bread that's virtually impossible to mess up.
THE IDEA: To many people (including me), the idea of baking bread from scratch is very intimidating. So when I saw this recipe for no-knead bread on Food52, I was intrigued, especially after reading all the positive comments. I figured it would be tough to mess up. Basically, the recipe explains that by using time and a few simple turns of the dough, you can mimic the effect of kneading. At first glance, I was shocked that this recipe takes over 24 hours. But then I realized that there’s very little active cooking involved, and most of the time is just waiting for the dough to rise in the fridge overnight.
DID IT WORK?: OMG. Yes!
THE RESULTS: I’d never made challah in my life, so I seriously couldn’t believe how well this bread turned out. First, I made the dough. Then every 30 minutes for the next 2 hours, I would grab the edges of the dough, fold it into the center, flip it over, let it rest for 30 minutes, and repeat. (If that sounds confusing, the Food52 recipe does a great job of explaining the process.) Once I finished the folding process, I braided the dough into two loaves and baked them in the oven for 20 minutes. To my surprise, the challah came out perfectly. It was yellow and moist on the inside, with a tougher, glossy crust. Not to mention, my apartment smelled like amazing, freshly baked bread all day. If you’re committed to following the directions and taking this methodic approach to baking, anyone can make this recipe.
HACK #3: Add orange liqueur to challah French toast to make it even better.
THE IDEA: French toast is one of the best breakfast foods in the universe. But challah French toast is in a league of its own. There are lots of tricks out there for making the absolute best French toast, but the one hack I kept seeing over and over on sites like Serious Eats and Epicurious says to add orange liquor to the batter. Supposedly, the result is thick, custardy French toast with a perfectly golden-brown crispy exterior, and a sweet-and-tangy flavor.
DID IT WORK?: Ohhh yeah. 😋
THE RESULTS: I followed Ina Garten's recipe for challah French toast because she's a queen. I made two batches of French toast to compare: In one batch, I followed Ina's recipe exactly. In the other batch, I added 1/4 cup Triple Sec. I brought in two professional tasters (pictured above) to judge the two versions. While one can't speak, my human taste-tester went crazy for the version with the orange liqueur. He thought both versions were the perfect balance of custardy and crispy, but the flavors of the liqueur version were deeper and more complex, and the orange liqueur helped balance the sweetness of the breakfast. I'd have to agree. This is the only way I'll ever make challah French toast again.
HACK #4: Make easy jelly-filled cupcakes as a foolproof, no-fry alternative to doughnuts.
THE IDEA: Jelly doughnuts (known in Hebrew as sufganiyot) are a traditional Hanukkah dessert. But it can be quite the pain (and the mess) to deep-fry doughnuts in your kitchen at home. The solution: These adorable jelly-filled cupcakes. The cupcakes are made with yellow cake mix and instant vanilla pudding. Once they've baked and cooked, you cut a little hole into the center of the cupcake and add your favorite fruit jam. Finally, sprinkle the cupcakes with powdered sugar. The end result should look like and taste similar to jelly doughnuts, but without the mess of deep-frying.
DID IT WORK?: Kinda.
THE RESULTS: If you're a die-hard doughnut lover, this dessert will disappoint you. But if you just love baked goods and want something that feels festive for Hanukkah, these babies are perfect. They were SO easy to make, coming together from start to finish in about 30 minutes. I carved a hole into each of the cupcakes with a sharp knife and filled them with Bonne Maman raspberry preserves, then dusted them with powdered sugar. They tasted similar to jelly doughnuts — but were probably more like muffins, TBH.
HACK #5: Swap the potatoes for fresh veggies to make low-carb, better-for-you latkes — that basically taste the same as the regular version.
THE IDEA: Potato latkes are delightful, but they’re also very starchy and high in carbs. Predictably, the internet has tons of veggie-based latke recipes that swap things like zucchini, beets, butternut squash, and even cauliflower for potatoes. Some of these recipes use half potatoes and half other veggies, and some get rid of the potatoes completely. I wanted to try a version that cuts potatoes out completely, so I stumbled upon a promising recipe for shredded zucchini and carrot fritters on a blog called the Toasted Pine Nut. They’re made almost identically to how you’d make traditional latkes: You grate zucchini and carrots, mix them with eggs, onion, salt, pepper, and dill, and then fry them in whatever cooking oil you prefer.
DID IT WORK? IMO, yes — and they didn't really taste like vegetables.
THE RESULTS: OK, if you’re a hardcore latke purist, you’re going to be disappointed by these fritters. There is absolutely no potato in these pancakes, which means by default they won’t be as starchy or as crispy as normal latkes. BUT if you’re looking for a lighter alternative to latkes, these are a winner. Even people who don’t love vegetables will enjoy these fritters (I mean, hello, they’re fried, they’re delightfully greasy, and the texture of the grated zucchini, carrot, and onion mimics the texture of potatoes). You could definitely go even further and bake these in the oven instead of frying them, but they’d probably taste more like veggie patties than like latkes.
HACK #6: Make a big batch of sangria with leftover Manischewitz wine.
DID IT WORK? You know what? It wasn't bad.
THE RESULTS: I’ve had way worse big-batch cocktails before, and this was definitely drinkable. TBH, when mixed with fruit, orange liquor, sparkling cider, and served over ice, Manischewitz tastes pretty much identical to any other budget wine you'd use in sangria — like Yellow Tail or Penguin. The Honeycrisp apples, cranberries, and cider also gave it a nice fall-like feel. If I'm choosing between drinking Manischewitz straight or mixing it into a festive sangria, I'd chose the latter every time. It's also super affordable (you can make a huge pitcher for about $15), which makes it the perfect big-batch drink for a Hanukkah get together with friends.
HACK #7: Make challah even better by adding a bit of orange juice + olive oil.
THE IDEA: Most challah recipes are very similar, calling for active dry yeast, flour, salt, sugar, and lots of eggs. So when I saw a New York Times challah recipe with 5 stars and 300 ratings that called for two secret ~special ingredients~ — extra virgin olive oil and orange juice — I was intrigued. Supposedly, the extra virgin olive oil makes the challah especially rich and moist, while the orange juice adds some brightness and sweetness to the bread. This recipe can be made from start to finish in a few hours.
DID IT WORK? Not really.
THE RESULTS: TBH, I didn't love this recipe. While it was far easier to make than I was expecting, I was disappointed once I cut into my warm challah bread. The orange juice and zest added too much sweetness to the bread, which IMO should be eggy and savory. And the olive oil was too strong — almost overpowering. If you're specifically looking for a new twist on an old classic, I'd recommend giving this recipe a try, but it wasn't for me.
HACK #8: Grate potatoes into ice water for the crispiest latkes ever.
THE IDEA: There's nothing quite like super-crispy potato pancakes. And according to one of my favorite websites, the Kitchn, there's an easy method for making them as crispy as possible. Here's how it goes: Follow your favorite latke recipe, but when you grate your russet potatoes, grate them into a bowl of freezing ice water. When you're done grating, remove the potatoes from the ice bath and ring out the extra water with a dish towel or paper towel, but don't empty out the ice water. Wait for 20 minutes and you'll notice a thick, white layer (starch) has appeared at the bottom of the bowl. Pour out the water carefully, leaving the starch at the bottom, then mix the starch back into your grated potatoes.
DID IT WORK?: Yes — but it wasn't worth the extra effort.
THE RESULTS: For the latkes, I used this highly-rated recipe from Food & Wine — and made two versions to compare. In one bowl, I grated the potatoes according to the Kitchn's ice water method, and in the other I used Food & Wine's method. Long story short: The ice water method took much longer and was more intensive — and the difference wasn't even that noticeable. Both final latkes were super crispy and delicious. I'd skip it, unless you have the extra time.
HACK #9: Make the easiest kid-friendly dreidel desserts with five simple ingredients.
Hannah Loewentheil/BuzzFeed / Via Hannah Loewentheil/BuzzFeed
DID IT WORK? I mean...what's not to work?
THE RESULTS: These dreidels came out super cute and since there was zero cooking or baking required, they were really easy to make. If I were throwing a Hanukkah party with young kids, this would be the perfect DIY activity to keep them busy. They could also be a very cute lunchbox addition to send your kids to school with around Hanukkah time.
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