Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is one of my favorite holidays for entertaining. Celebrated in the depths of winter, it brings warmth and light into the home, and offers an opportunity to gather friends and family together for a cozy celebration.
My mom made potato latkes (Eastern European fried potato pancakes) every year for Hanukkah. We'd eat them, perfectly crisp and still sputtering from the pan, dolloped with cool sour cream or her homemade applesauce. The combination of potatoes and apples was effortlessly seasonal — at once startlingly simple, and delightfully festive. I hold her latkes as the gold standard (my recipe is essentially a dressed-up take on her version), and attempt to bring the same sense of warmth to my Hanukkah parties as I remember from growing up.
Unlike most Jewish holidays, Hanukkah doesn't have a lot of formal rules, so there is a lot of room to play around and get creative. And latkes, meanwhile, make delightful cocktail party food. So each year, I like to throw a Hanukkah-focused cocktail party for friends and family. I tend to keep my Hanukkah gatherings on the smaller side, usually between six and eight guests. The holiday is eight nights long, which means eight potential nights of parties and fried food, so it's best to pace yourself!
The Miracle of Oil
Historically speaking, the holiday commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabees (a small, scrappy Judean army) recaptured it from the ancient Greeks. As legend has it, the Maccabees could only find enough olive oil within the ruins to light the Temple's menorah for one night. But it miraculously lasted for eight nights. Thanks to that "miracle of oil," lighting candles and eating foods fried in oil has become an essential element of the holiday.
I keep the menu simple and fun, with latkes as the main attraction. I try to do something new every year, subbing in sweet potatoes or other root vegetables for the regular spuds, or, as I did this year, adding in a handful of fresh herbs and sweet scallions to the mix. To avoid any grease smells during party time, I fry the latkes a week in advance and freeze them (most people don't realize they keep remarkably well!), then crisp them in a hot oven a few minutes before guests arrive.
A Modern Cocktail Menu for Hanukkah
I offset the latkes with a couple of fun and complementary dishes. A smoky-sweet beet hummus served with crudité offers a bit of freshness, while bite-sized, cheesy gougères filled with fig jam are wonderfully decadent. I also stock the drinks table with bubbly, which I find nicely offsets fried food. Straight-up Champagne or prosecco would do the trick just fine, but I prefer to up the ante with a seasonal splash of apple cider and a hit of fennel-infused simple syrup.
Celebrate with Simplicity
Simplicity is key to keeping my sanity when entertaining, and that definitely extends to decorations. On Hanukkah, the menorahs are the visual focal point. I invite guests who celebrate Hanukkah to bring their menorahs with them. The warmth of a few candelabras glowing together in the window sets the party's tone. Then, I build around them with a simple linen tablecloth, elemental serving pieces accented here and there with a little sparkle (it is the holidays, after all!), and fresh, seasonal flowers tucked into small vases or Mason jars. A scattering of chocolate gelt and dreidels on the table also adds a gilded touch.
Making guests feel welcome and at home from the moment they walk in is paramount to any party. So for Hanukkah, or any gathering during the winter months, I like to keep a saucepan simmering on the stove filled with water, halved apples and limes, cinnamon sticks, cloves, and cardamom pods. It fills the space with a cozy, slightly spicy perfume. With a cocktail in one hand, a plate of latkes in the other, and some great tunes on the speakers, Hanukkah is bound to be bright.