Reinterpreting The Latke, Deconstructing the Doughnut

A new take on traditional Chanukah fare embraces holistic eating and seasonal infusions


Reinterpreting The Latke, Deconstructing the Doughnut

Photo Credit: foodonthefood

by David Lipson - New York

December 13, 2009

(lubavitch.com) Latkes with applesauce and sour cream may be a familiar favorite, but this Chanukah Pessy Haskelevich is serving them instead with a side of pear and ginger compote.

The Lubavitch chef from Crown Heights reinterprets the traditional holiday treat with her own epicurean flair. She’s formed an ad hoc Chanukah catering service with her friend and gourmet doughnut maker Itta Werdiger Roth to shake up what she calls “the old-fashioned, non-flavored” Jewish standards. The two women use fresh seasonal ingredients such as quince, cardamom, rutabaga, and ginger.

“I love tradition, but I always have to have something new and different,” Haskelevich says. “It’s a great thing, but it’s also a bad thing. Sometimes in business you have to think about what works and I never want to make the same thing twice.”

This finicky formula isn’t necessarily a recipe for failure because it is Haskelevich’s refusal to settle that has led to her career as a burgeoning chef. She studied to be a physical therapist at Touro College in Brooklyn, but soon realized she didn’t like hanging around hospitals. There was also a stint as a paralegal. Food wasn’t a serious career option. “I always felt like food was so self-serving and gluttonous,” she says. “I was a little bit embarrassed about how many cook books I read. I didn’t want anyone to know how many magazines I get like Bon Appetit.”

Haskelevich soon came to terms with her passion and realized food could be used to serve a higher purpose – it could be spiritual. “At a certain point I realized that one of the most important things in serving God is serving him with joy,” she says.  “OK I’m not changing the world, I’m not going to Africa saving homeless children, but I am doing something that is meaningful and makes people happy.”

Now that she has embraced being a chef, Haskelevich is focused on learning as much as she can about cooking and the “impact food has on different cultures.” She has crafted Moroccan meatballs in a Parisian kitchen, prepared couscous from scratch at a Libyan restaurant in Tel Aviv, toured Israel’s wineries, and worked in some of New York’s fine kosher and non-kosher restaurants. And now there is the home-based business that takes the traditional potato latke and infuses it with combinations such beets and cumin, carrot and coriander, and rutabaga and ginger.

Her partner, Werdiger Roth, is a 27-year-old personal chef originally from Australia. Her take on the traditional sufganiyot (doughnuts) includes using whole wheat flour with organic and seasonal fillings such as apple and ginger, pear spice, and quince and cardamom. She also bakes the doughnuts. The holiday staple is normally fried in oil to symbolize the Chanukah miracle. But Werdiger Roth doesn’t consider a baked doughnut a sacrilegious oxymoron. Just ask if her if the doughnuts are healthy. “I wouldn’t use the word healthy,” she says “I’d use the word wholesome. They have tons of butter in them and they are covered in sugar and cinnamon.” 

Werdiger Roth refutes the suggestion, that by not using oil in her doughnuts, she might be neglecting the religious symbolism of sufganiyot. She is quick to remind me of the role dairy food played in the Maccabean revolt. Yehudit, a lesser known Chanukah hero, seduced the Syrian-Greek general Holofernes with cheese and wine before beheading him. “Even though it’s also a custom to have oily foods because it’s a miracle of oil – it’s also a custom to have dairy foods,” says Werdiger Roth.  “We’ve got the oil in the latkes and butter in the doughnuts.” 

To order some of Itta’s doughnuts which come in three varieties: apple and ginger; pear spice, email her here: ittawerdiger@gmail.com

For Pessy’s latkes, (beet and cumin; carrot and coriander, rutabaga and ginger or classic potato): anatomyoftaste@gmail.com

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