Warm up your family’s kitchen this week, whether you’re Jewish or not.

By Stacey Ballis
December 11, 2020
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The key component (and sometimes challenge) of Hanukkah is that it lasts for eight days. And since these particular eight days are overlapping with school winter break, and many families this year are still homeschooling and/or working from home, how can you make this Hanukkah super special in spite of the circumstances?

Here’s the answer: cooking projects that you can do as a family.

Eight days of cooking projects!

Part of the beauty of these projects is that they involve working together: advance planning or discussion, divvying up of duties, and ending up with results that every person in your household feels ownership of and pride in. The best part? You do NOT have to be Jewish to participate! This does not have to be about religion, it can be about tradition, so whether you choose to make traditional latkes for the first time (and let me be clear, you absolutely should) or a baking project that you have always wanted to try, now is the time. I’m looking at you Swedish Princess Cake, which this year I am going to attempt as a Jewish Princess Cake, since as far as I can tell, cake, custard, jam, cream, and marzipan are all pretty secular, and also, one of my favorite cakes that I have never made. Jewish fam, don’t hesitate to grab a gingerbread house kit and rename it a gingerbread temple and decorate in white and blue and silver and stick a menorah in the front yard. We are all in this together.

Tips to get started on cooking projects

First, sit down together and make the plan. If you have older kids, pull out some of the cookbooks you always mean to use, and make some menus together, looking for the types of dishes that have plenty for everyone to do.

If you have younger kids, think about foods that are fun and easy to make and require many hands (dumplings, homemade pizza), and foods that can be decorated or made visually interesting (cookies, cakes, those hot dog/spaghetti octopi and other Pinterest dishes).

Plan the largest/longest projects for the weekend. Think about braises and slow cooked dishes for the weeknights. Thinking global or historical can be a great way to plan, especially if your kids are studying a particular culture or era for school. The research can be half the fun.

Here are eight suggestions to get you cooking! Happy Hanukkah!

Latkes

Why you should do it: Latkes are the most famous traditional Hanukkah food, so even if you are not Jewish, if you are going in on eight days of cooking with us, at least one night should be devoted to these perfect fried potato pancakes. Once you know how, you will make them all year long, trust me. They are great for a weeknight project since they come together fast; everyone can help peeling potatoes (even the little ones). They're best hot out of the pan, making for a convivial meal of everyone standing around the kitchen waiting for the next batch to hit the platter! I love them for a stand-up family grazing meal of a good cheese board, some raw vegetables, and some fun options for dipping and topping. Applesauce and sour cream are traditional, but also, think smoked salmon, thin sliced deli roast beef, and everything from ranch to BBQ for dipping.

Get the recipe: If you don’t have a family recipe, or if your family recipe doesn’t get great results, try my quick, easy latkes.  

Curried Carrot Latkes image
Credit: Jennifer Causey; Food Styling: Catherine Crowell Steele; Prop Styling: Thom Driver

Tagine

Why you should do it: This long-simmered Moroccan stew is perfect this time of year, full of warming spices that make your house smell amazing, and interesting ingredients like dried fruits and nuts. The traditional accompaniment is couscous, which can be made quickly, so if you assemble the night before or at lunchtime, it can hang out in your slow cooker or a low oven all afternoon, making it weeknight accessible. There are many versions, so find the one that seems to be the best fit for your household.

Get the recipe: We love this Chicken Tagine with Raisins and Pistachios.

Homemade Pasta

Why you should do it: Making pasta from scratch is just a fun cooking project, whether you have kids or not. Learning how to feel when the dough is right, rolling it out, and cutting shapes is an ideal activity because while not difficult it takes time and focus. Pasta making is always better with more hands, from one person feeding the roller and another manning the crank or the button, to filling stuffed shapes like ravioli or tortellini and making sauces. And the end result, even if imperfect, is still delicious.

Get the recipe: Here is our favorite way to start making your own pasta from scratch!

Tamales

Why you should do it: Homemade tamales are a thing of beauty and another “more hands make fast work” project. They freeze beautifully, so once you get your family in on the magic, you can make enough for your dinner and still have a bunch to freeze for future snacks and meals! This is another recipe where the technique is everything and the fillings can be whatever you love.

Get the recipe: Beef Tamales

Blintzes

Why you should do it: Every culture has a food where some kind of carb is wrapped around some kind of protein, and for Jews, blintzes are it. A thin crepe filled with either a sweet or savory cheese filling and served with some sort of sauce. Blintzes are soul food of the highest order and a fun cooking project to undertake. From making the crepes to filling and rolling, to panfrying and then making sauces or accompaniments, this is a wonderful project for the whole family.

Get the recipe: This blintz recipe has both sweet and savory filling options, so if you want to make a whole meal, it is a one-stop shop. The possible accompaniments are limitless.

Sufganiyot (AKA doughnuts)

Why you should do it: Since Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of one day’s worth of lamp oil lasting eight days and nights, fried foods are traditional (see: latkes, above). And the classic dessert is a fried doughnut filled with jam! What is bad about that? Talk about a great project for your weekend: What better way to start your day than making homemade doughnuts for a Hanukkah brunch?

Get the recipe: Sufganyiot can be filled with whatever you love, any flavor of jam or custard, or even flavored whipped cream. Be sure everyone in your family has their favorite flavor to make them customized.

Decorated cookies

Why you should do it: Holiday cookies are universal, and the fun is in the cutting and decorating. This is an ideal project for a lazy weekend afternoon, but also, if you bake the cookies ahead, you can use it as an interactive after-dinner dessert project! Kids of all ages love to create these edible works of art, and the older and more skilled your participants, the more complex and detailed they can be. But even a two-year-old can dunk a cookie in icing and toss on some sprinkles. Make them themed for the holiday by cutting out dreidels, menorahs, and stars of David, or just a fun blank canvas with squares, rectangles and circles.

Get the recipe: These Cut-Out Butter Cookies are a great start for decorating, and Royal Icing can be made any color and is great for piping, flooding, and even sticking cookies together if you are making three dimensional projects like gingerbread buildings.