One of my favorite foods from my “adopted” Jewish heritage has to be potato latkes, particularly my husband’s. It’s a family recipe lovingly passed down and painstakingly recreated (down to the fingers bloodied from hand-grating the potatoes) for generations. The recipe is special not only because it produces exquisite little crispy pancakes but also because it connects us to family history. Although I enjoy experimenting with recipes—especially those that unite Jewish culinary traditions with those of my Italian background—I haven’t been able to bring myself to experiment with the beloved potato latkes.
But when I discovered that the very first latkes were cheese pancakes, well, that provided motivation for some new recipes. Those early latkes came to be when Italy’s Jews adopted ricotta pancakes as a Hanukkah dish. Those creamy cakes, sitting squarely at an intersection of Jewish and Italian cuisine, could be something to experiment with and make my own.
Finding these connections enhances how I enjoy this simple winter holiday, which I first got to know after converting to Judaism. In contrast to Christmas, Hanukkah takes a quieter approach, an aspect I’ve come to greatly appreciate. Each night offers a little moment of peace as we light an additional candle to commemorate the historic rededication of the Jewish temple—when a small vial of precious olive oil provided light for eight nights.
Each night also offers an opportunity for fantastic food, given that the traditions evolved to incorporate foods fried in oil. But as if eight nights of fried foods wasn’t enough, there’s also a tradition of dairy dishes. This comes by way of an associated holiday story in which Judith infiltrated the enemy camp, used salty cheese to make the enemy leader so thirsty he got drunk on wine, and then killed him when he passed out. So some say the miracle was done (or greatly helped) through milk.
These food themes merge delightfully with Italian ricotta pancakes, fried ever so lightly on the griddle. And besides pulling from Italian and Jewish traditions, the recipe adopts the style of modern American pancakes or hotcakes. But it tastes so much better thanks to ricotta and lemon zest and the airiness of whipped egg whites.
My lemon-ricotta pancakes blend the frying and the dairy themes, but more important to me, they represent a marriage of evolving Italian, Jewish, and American food traditions that works in its own unique way to connect us to Hanukkahs past and present. By its nature, the dish welcomes all to the table, and, in so doing, I’d like to think makes all our holidays a little brighter. And it leaves plenty of room for those potato latkes.
These luscious pancakes made with ricotta, a cheese of Italian origin, should be made ahead—really. Reheating in the oven mellows the cheese and lemon flavor and perfects the texture so that a slightly crispy exterior gives way to a creamy interior. I love serving these as a “sandwich” with cream spiked with limoncello, a lemon-flavored liqueur originating from the Amalfi Coast and Sicily. The short stack makes a beautiful and appetizing presentation—especially for dairy-focused celebrations such as Hanukkah or Shavuot.
The hot pancakes work beautifully as a short stack with a dollop of limoncello (an Italian lemon liqueur) whipped cream in the middle. A few blueberries scattered about add flavor and that blue color so festive for the holiday. If you are cooking with children, omit the limoncello from the whipped cream, and let kids help make the pancake “sandwiches” and decorate with the berries. These beautiful stacks can be breakfast but I prefer them as dessert. No matter what, just be sure to serve them right away.
Makes 20 to 22 small pancakes, or 10 or 11 pancake sandwiches (1 to 2 sandwiches per serving)
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. nutmeg
½ tsp. salt
3 large eggs, separated
1½ cups buttermilk
1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
3 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Cooking spray or extra-virgin olive oil for greasing the griddle or pan
2 cups heavy whipping cream
½ tsp. vanilla extract
3 Tbsp. limoncello
1½ Tbsp. sugar
Fresh blueberries or other berries (optional)
This recipe, I discovered by happy accident, also improves when made in advance. Make the pancakes up to a couple of weeks ahead, freeze them, and then reheat them in the oven and make the whipped cream just before serving. The flavors meld and the exteriors become slightly crispy while their interiors stay creamy and rich. In the true spirit of the holiday, the cook can actually sit down and enjoy this recipe together with everyone.
1. Lightly whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, nutmeg and salt in a bowl or on a sheet of wax paper. In a large mixing bowl, whisk egg yolks, buttermilk, ricotta cheese, sugar, vanilla and lemon zest.
2. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric mixer on high speed until they hold stiff peaks, about 1 minute.
3. Sprinkle the dry ingredients over the ricotta mixture and stir until just incorporated (will still be a bit lumpy). Fold in the egg whites until just a few stray streaks of white remain. The batter will be fluffy and lumpy.
4. Heat a griddle to medium-high and brush with olive oil or spray with cooking spray. Drop ¼ cupfuls of batter onto griddle; spread gently with the back of a spoon to make an approximate 3½-inch circle. Cook until golden brown on both sides and transfer to a wire rack to cool. Repeat with remaining batter.
5. Either serve immediately following the steps below, or when pancakes are completely cool, wrap and freeze.
6. To serve, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Prepare two baking sheets, placing an ovenproof wire rack on each one. Place frozen pancakes in a single layer on the wire racks and bake until warmed and slightly crispy, rotating pans and turning pancakes halfway through, 16 to 22 minutes.
7. Meanwhile, combine the heavy cream, vanilla and limoncello. Beat on high speed. As the cream gains a little volume, sprinkle sugar over, and continue beating until the cream holds soft peaks.
8. When pancakes are done, place a generous dollop of whipped cream between two pancakes and top with another spoonful of cream. Scatter fresh berries over top and sides. The cream will start to melt, which is lovely. Serve right away.
Learn about Marcia’s other Italian-Jewish cooking ideas with her cookbook, Meatballs and Matzah Balls.
Recipe courtesy of Marcia A. Friedman from Meatballs and Matzah Balls: Recipes and Reflections from a Jewish and Italian Life.
Photos copyright Marcia A. Friedman