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Who Invented Chanukah Gelt?
Theories tracing the Chanukah-gelt connection; when and why chocolate coins were first covered in gold foil; and more. Plus—recipes for Homemade Chocolate Truffle "Gelt," Potato Galette with Mushrooms, and Herbend Risotto Pancakes.

by Tina Wasserman

Scholars have offered several theories. One traces the tradition back to the decision of the Hasmoneans to mint their own nation's coins after their military victory over the Greek Syrians. Another theory focuses on the name of the holiday. Although Chanukah means dedication, it is linguistically related to hinnukh, which means education. Perhaps for this reason, some Jewish communities chose Chanukah as the time to celebrate the freedom to be educated Jewishly. Maimonides made the education-gelt connection when he described Chanukah gelt as "an incentive for you [children] to study Torah properly."

Writing in the early 18th century, a disciple of the Ba'al Shem Tov noted that it was customary for rabbis to make educational pilgrimages to remote villages during the Chanukah season to strengthen the Jews' study of Torah. Initially the rabbis rejected payment for these services, but subsequently they came to accept coins as well as whisky, food, and honey as compensation for lost time away from home—in effect, a gift of Chanukah gelt.

It wasn't until the 19th century that Chanukah gelt was given primarily to children. In the Sephardic and Oriental Jewish communities, poor children would go door-to-door during the holiday offering to protect Jewish homes from the Evil Eye by burning special grasses in exchange for money or gifts. In Yemen, children would receive a daily coin from their parents to purchase the sugar and red food dye needed to make the "Chanukah wine" consumed at nightly gatherings during the holiday.

In the 20th century, as political Zionism gained a strong following, the recounting of the Maccabees' efforts to reclaim the Temple became symbolic of the passionate desire for an independent Jewish state. Adults retold the Chanukah story and gave children coins as they taught them about their heritage.

Perhaps the most familiar form of Chanukah gelt today is a chocolate coin covered in gold foil. This tradition is decidedly European in origin, probably dating from the late 18th and early 19th century, when Jews figured prominently in chocolate manufacturing. Fashioning coins out of chocolate would have allowed poor children to take pleasure in the growing Jewish tradition of receiving gelt at Chanukah time.

This year, may we all remember the values of Chanukah: Jewish pride, religious freedom, and, as exemplified by gelt--the gift of learning.

Homemade Chocolate Truffle "Gelt"

These chocolate morsels are as rich as any to be found in Europe, then or now. Although these filled truffles cannot be flattened like a coin, they can be individually wrapped in malleable gold foil to evoke the image of metallic coins. Each truffle contains less than 1/8th teaspoon alcohol, which helps to "cook" the yolks in this mixture. One Tablespoon of orange juice can be substituted, but it will slightly alter the taste and consistency.

6 ounces of chocolate: dark, milk, or white (see notes about white chocolate below)
1/4 cup sweet, unsalted butter
2 egg yolks
1 Tablespoon coffee liqueur, cognac or Grand Marnier
Dried, sweetened cherries, cranberries, or raisins
Gold foil paper

1. Place the chocolate in a 1-quart bowl; then place the bowl in a 1-quart saucepan filled halfway with hot but not boiling water. Over low heat, melt the chocolate and stir to remove any lumps.

2. Remove the bowl of chocolate from the hot water bath.

3. Cut the butter into 4 pieces and gradually whisk it in, one piece at a time, until all the butter has been incorporated.

4. Whisk in the yolks until they're thoroughly combined. (Don't be concerned about the mixture looking grainy and separated or about using raw yolks; the yolks will essentially be "cooked" by the alcohol in the liqueur.) Then whisk in the cognac or other flavoring.

5. Cover and refrigerate for an hour, or until the mixture is firm but not rock hard.

6. Working quickly so that your hands do not melt the truffles, place a heaping teaspoon of chocolate in your hand. Press a dried cherry (or other fruit) into the center of the chocolate, and then shape the chocolate into a rough ball, about an inch in diameter, which completely encases the fruit. Handle the chocolate as little as possible to prevent melting.

7. Using your fingertips only, roll the truffle in cocoa. Place on a plastic wrap-lined plate, cover with additional wrap, and refrigerate until firm (about 30 minutes for dark chocolate and 15 minutes longer for milk or white chocolate). Your traditional truffles are now ready to eat!

8. To create "coins," wrap the truffles in gold or aluminum foil. Yield: at least 3-4 dozen truffles.

Tina's Tidbits:

  • When cooking with chocolate, keep in mind that white chocolate is not really chocolate at all, since it is made with cocoa butter only, without any chocolate solids. Working with white "chocolate" can be more difficult, and result in a grainier texture—but it's still delicious! |
  • Coffee enhances the flavor of chocolate markedly; that's why I recommend Kahlua or other coffee liqueurs for alcohol.

Potato Galette with Mushrooms

This is an easy-to-prepare side dish inspired by the potato galettes of France. It's perfect for Chanukah entertaining--or entertaining any time. If you love the earthy taste of mushrooms, you will love this dish.

4 cups assorted sliced mushrooms (domestic, baby bellas, shitake, and/or oyster)
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 small shallot, finely minced
3 sprigs of thyme, stems removed
Pinch of nutmeg
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter (or oil for pareve)
1 large onion, cut in half and thinly sliced
1-pound bag of defrosted, shredded hash brown potatoes
2 eggs, lightly beaten
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Heat a 10-inch skillet on high for 15 seconds. Add the butter and oil and cook for another 15 seconds. Add the sliced mushrooms and sauté over medium-high heat for 5 minutes. Add the shallots and sauté another 3 minutes. Season with thyme leaves, nutmeg, and salt and pepper, and set aside.

2. Heat another 10-inch skillet on high for 15 seconds. Add the oil and butter and cook for an additional 15 seconds. Add the onions and sauté on high for 5 minutes or until some of the onions are dark golden brown.

3. Place the defrosted potatoes in a 2-quart bowl. Pour the sautéed onions and all of the melted oil/butter mixture into the bowl. Add the eggs and season liberally with salt and pepper. Toss with a rubber spatula until the potatoes are evenly coated. Set aside.

4. Spray a 5-cup casserole or 10-inch glass pie plate with non-stick spray. Spread 2/3 of the potato mixture over the bottom and make a shallow well in the middle of the potatoes, slightly pushing the potatoes up the sides of the dish.

5. Place the mushroom mixture in the center of the potatoes, then spread the remainder of the potatoes around the perimeter of the dish. Do not pack the potatoes down.

6. Bake in a pre-heated 400° oven for 45 minutes or until golden. Cut into wedges. Serves 8.

Tina's Tidbits

  • When cooking with potatoes, it's preferable to use more salt than you're accustomed to in order to bring out the flavors of your dish. Potatoes absorb salt more than most foods.
  • Whenever a recipe calls for a small amount of garlic or shallot to be fried with other ingredients, add them after the others have cooked a few minutes. This will help prevent browning the garlic/shallots and embittering your dish.

Herbed Risotto Pancakes

The following recipe is a welcome addition to any Chanukah table. The soft interior is complemented by the crunchy exterior and very little oil is used to produce that crunch! Yes, risotto is labor intensive, since it requires almost constant stirring, but otherwise it's a cinch to make.

5 cups vegetable broth
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1 clove garlic
1/3 cup finely-chopped onion
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/3 cup freshly-grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup fresh basil, mint, or Mexican mint marigold, finely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Cornmeal for dusting pancakes
2 or more Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1. Heat the broth in a 2-quart saucepan until it begins to simmer. Keep warm.

2. Melt 3 Tablespoons of the butter in a large saucepan and sauté the garlic and onions for 2 minutes, or until soft and very lightly golden.

3. Add the rice and stir for a minute to coat all the grains. Pour in the wine and stir until it is fully absorbed.

4. Add the stock 1/2 cup at a time, stirring frequently as you go. The stock should be almost completely absorbed before you add the next 1/2 cup. Save 1/4 cup of the stock to be added at the end.

5. When the rice is tender but still firm and a little chewy (about 25 minutes), add the remaining 1/4 cup of broth. Remove from the heat and stir in the remaining Tablespoon of butter, Parmesan cheese, and fresh herbs. Continue stirring for about a minute, until the mixture is completely combined.

6. Transfer the mixture to a flat plate and refrigerate until it's cool—at least 30-45 minutes.

7. Place the cornmeal on a plate. Using your hands, shape the risotto mixture into 3-inch wide, 1/2-inch thick pancakes. Coat the pancakes lightly with cornmeal.

8. Heat 2 Tablespoons of olive oil in a large non-stick pan until the oil is very hot Add the pancakes and sauté them over medium-high heat on both sides for a total of 3 or 4 minutes, until heated through and golden. Serves 8 or more.

Tina's Tidbits:

  • To create a creamy pasta, use Arborio Rice, a short, fat rice grown in Italy. It's much starchier than other medium-grain rice, and its high starch content makes for a very creamy finished product. Don't substitute long grain rice; you'll likely end up with a soupy, mushy pasta.
  • The easiest way to cook rice is to place 1 cup of rice in 2 cups of water in a covered microwaveable casserole (salt and margarine/butter are optional). Heat on high for 5 minutes; then stir and heat on medium for 15 minutes. Let sit for a minute or two and serve!

Tina D. Wasserman, a member of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas, has been teaching at her own cooking school for more than thirty years and writes a kosher cooking newsletter on the Internet.


Union for Reform Judaism.