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The Miracle of the Oil — in Chanukah Cooking

By Paula Shoyer


Photo credit: Natasha Breen from Pixabay
Chanukah is almost synonymous with oil because of the miracle of the little bit of oil that lit the Temple Menorah for eight days. Oil is the basis of our cooking every single day, and today we are faced with a myriad of choices. Back in biblical times, there was just olive oil.

In ancient Israel, olive oil production was the basis of the economy and it was used for fuel, medications, cosmetics and anointing. The word “moshiach,” the Messiah, literally means the anointed one. Olive oil is mentioned in the Bible as one of the seven treasured agricultural products native to the land of Israel. In fact, the word “oil” comes from the Latin “olea,” or olive.

In 1997, Ehud Galili and a team of Israeli archaeologists published a paper about finding thousands of crushed olive stones and pulp, waste from oil extraction likely of wild olives, in pits at the Kfar Samir prehistoric settlement off the Carmel coast south of Haifa. The findings prove olive oil production as early as 6,500 years ago.

Olive oil use spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean countries and became the basis of cooking in Italy and Spain as well.

Around 1800, olive oil was brought to America by Italian and Greek immigrants, though it became popular much later.

In many other countries, animal fats served as the primary fat for generations. In 1900, David Wesson gave Americans the first U.S.-produced non-animal fat to use in cooking. In 1911 corn oil was introduced. Canola came to the U.S. from Canada in 1985.

To make the best oil choices for your cooking, you should know the health benefits and best uses of each. When we talk about the health properties of oils, note that all fats are 9 calories per gram.

There are three types of fats: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.

Saturated fats have a higher proportion of fatty acid molecules. The American Heart Association recommends a diet of no more than 5% or 6% saturated fats. These fats raise cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Saturated fats typically come from animals and plant-based oils such as palm and coconut.

Monounsaturated fats come from seeds, nuts and fruits. These include olive, canola, avocado, peanut, safflower, flax and sesame. These fats help reduce cholesterol and contain vitamin E.

Says Amy Riolo, cookbook author and expert on Mediterranean food, “A great deal of research has been conducted on the principal antioxidant found in extra-virgin olive oil, known as polyphenols. The higher the amount of polyphenols that an extra-virgin olive oil contains, the better it is for you.” Polyphenols assist in preventing degenerative diseases.

Polyunsaturated fats include soybean, sunflower and grape seed oils. These are good for you because they contain omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. Omega 3s promote weight loss, fight depression and anxiety, improve brain function, reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and fight inflammation. While Omega 6s lower your LDL (the bad cholesterol) and raise HDL (the good cholesterol), they should be consumed in moderation because they are also inflammatory and can cause illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, IBS and arthritis. Recent studies recommend a 4:1 ratio of omega 3s to 6s.  

Canola is low in saturated fat and is one I use often in everyday cooking. In Canada, rapeseed plants were genetically modified to contain low erucic acid. The name “canola” comes from “Canadian oil low in acid.”

Vegetable oil is sold for Passover, as other seed-based oils are prohibited. Vegetable oil is not the healthiest because it is highly processed and predominantly made up of polyunsaturated fats. Vegetable oils are also too high in Omega 6 fatty acids.

Margarine, a solid form of vegetable oil, is made from safflower, sunflower, soybean and cottonseed, crops that absorb large amounts of toxic pesticides. It contains trans fats, which increase your risk of coronary diseases, and has been linked to obesity, diabetes, allergies, some cancers and adversely impacting your brain, nervous system and immune response. In recent years, producers have reduced trans fats, though according to certified health and wellness coach Lori Fish Bard, “Food labeling rules allow products to state that they contain ‘zero trans fats’ if there is less than .5 grams of trans fats per serving,” so clearly, trans fats remain in margarine.

According to Bard, coconut oil is a better choice than margarine because, for starters, it is free from trans fats. Bard explained that contrary to many reports, coconut oil has powerful anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties. Although a saturated fat, it is abundant in medium chain triglycerides, or MCTs. A National Institutes of Health study showed how MCT oils can prevent obesity and arteriosclerosis. In addition, most of the saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, which lowers cholesterol levels and increases immunity, boosts thyroid function and improves absorption of calcium and vitamin D.

Proponents of the keto diet recommend adding coconut oil to many foods to boost energy and promote weight loss. Coconut oil can help your body get into the state of ketosis where it burns fat in the absence of carbs. Moreover, the lauric acid purportedly curbs hunger.

You should always buy virgin coconut oil rather than the refined type, as the virgin oil is less processed.

When choosing an oil to cook with, the first question to answer is how you are using it. Different oils are best for salads, sautéing, roasting or frying.

For cooking, the smoke point dictates the appropriate oil. Smoke point is the temperature at which oil smokes and burns. The higher the smoke point of the particular oil, the higher the temperature you can use for cooking. Overheating your oil destroys the nutrients, so you need to tailor your choice of oil to the cooking temperature.

If you are frying, use an oil with a high smoke point, 400°F and higher. The best options are almond, corn, canola, grapeseed, peanut, safflower, sesame and sunflower oils.

Many people believe that you cannot fry in olive oil. According to Riolo. “If it is a good, low acidity extra-virgin olive oil, it will have a smoke point high enough to fry in.” She recommends frying latkes in it.  

Next, you must consider how much flavor you want from the oil, whether strong or neutral. Taste it if you are not sure. For baking you need a neutral flavor, so I typically use safflower or canola oils in my dessert recipes. I do also bake with olive oil to create Chanukah desserts, see below. I often use coconut oil in lieu of margarine for dough and crusts. I measure and refrigerate the coconut oil until hard and then cut the chilled pieces into my dry ingredients.

For salad dressing, I prefer flaxseed, avocado, canola or extra-virgin olive oil.

If you want to make an infused or flavored oil to drizzle on your food, use extra-virgin olive oil.

For marinating meats, if I am ultimately going to be cooking at a high temperature, I will use oil with a high smoke point.

In “The Healthy Jewish Kitchen” cookbook, I recommend baking latkes and schnitzel in the oven (see next page). My method uses mere tablespoons of oil heated in a pan in the oven at high heat and then the food fries in the oil.

When baking with coconut oil, add extra vanilla, cinnamon or lemon to mask the coconut flavor, if desired.




Parve, Gluten-free, Vegetarian, Passover • Serves 6
Everyone loves potato latkes, but no one likes the mess of frying them, or the guilt associated with eating them. These latkes are baked in the oven and easily won over my kids. You do need to watch them so they do not burn; they were done at different times in different ovens. The Pickled Applesauce is basically a tangy-spicy applesauce, which we also eat with schnitzel.

PREP TIME: 10 minutes •   COOK TIME: 20 to 24 minutes • ADVANCE PREP: Latkes may be made 2 days in advance and reheated in the oven or frozen; applesauce may be made 4 days in advance • EQUIPMENT: Cutting board, knife, vegetable brush, measuring cups and spoons, citrus juicer, vegetable peeler, 2 jelly roll pans, food processor, medium bowl, box grater, wooden spoon, oven mitts, slotted spatula, small saucepan with lid, immersion blender


  • 2 tablespoons sunflower or safflower oil, or more if needed
  • 1/2 medium onion, quartered
  • 3 scallions, ends trimmed, cut into thin slices or chopped into small pieces
  • 3 medium potatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds [700 g]), scrubbed clean and unpeeled
  • 2 teaspoons (10 mL) fresh lemon juice
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 tablespoons potato starch
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper

  • 1 teaspoon sunflower or safflower oil
  • 1/3 cup red onions, chopped into 1/4-inch (6 mm) pieces
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • 2 apples, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch (12 mm) cubes
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Pinch black pepper
To make the latkes, preheat the oven to 450°F (230°C ). When the oven is hot, pour 2 tablespoons of oil onto 2 jelly roll pans and turn them in every direction so that the oil coats the pans. Heat the pans in the oven for 5 minutes.

Place the onions and scallions in the bowl of a food processor and chop them into small pieces. Place them in a medium bowl. Shred the potatoes by hand on the large holes of a box grater or in a food processor with the shredding blade, and place in the bowl. Add the lemon juice, eggs, baking powder, potato starch, salt and pepper and mix well.

Very carefully (I mean really carefully; move very slowly) remove one of the pans and use your hands or a spoon to scoop up and drop clumps of the potato mixture, a little less than 1/4 cup, onto the pan. I use my hands. Press the mixture down to flatten it a little.

Place the pan in the oven for 10 to 12 minutes and immediately remove the second oiled pan. Repeat the same process with the remaining potato mixture and bake the second pan of latkes for 10 to 12 minutes. Bake them until the edges are well browned, and then with a slotted spatula turn them over and cook the latkes for another 8 to 10 minutes, or until the bottoms are browned. May be made 2 days in advance and reheated in the oven.

Meanwhile, to make the applesauce, heat the oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook them for 3 minutes, until they soften. Add the vinegar and brown sugar and cook for another 3 minutes. Add the apples, coriander, ginger, cinnamon stick, salt and pepper, and cook, covered, on low heat for 15 minutes, or until the apples are soft. Let the mixture cool for 10 minutes and then purée it, using an immersion blender or a food processor. May be made 4 days in advance and served warm or cold.

Reprinted with permission from “The Healthy Jewish Kitchen” © 2017 by Paula Shoyer, Sterling Epicure. Photography by Bill Milne.


Serves 8 to 12
The use of olive oil in cakes dates back farther than the Chanukah story itself. Olive oil was used in baked offerings at the Temple. This is a super-easy teatime cake that reminds me of simple cakes I have eaten in Italy. If you are feeling decadent, serve this with whipped cream.
  • 3/4 cup (90 g) sliced almonds (with or without skins)
  • 1 cup (200 g) sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup (120 mL) extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup (125 g) all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup (60 g) ground almonds
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon orange zest (from one orange)
  • spray oil containing flour

PREHEAT OVEN  to 350°F (180°C ). Trace an 8-inch (20 cm) round pan on parchment paper and cut it out with scissors. Grease and flour the pan, press in the parchment circle; grease and flour the top of the parchment and sides of the pan. Sprinkle and spread the sliced almonds on the bottom of the pan to cover it.

IN A MEDIUM BOWL, beat the sugar, eggs, and olive oil for about one minute at medium speed until creamy. Add the flour, ground almonds, baking powder, salt, almond extract and orange zest and beat until combined. Pour the mixture over the sliced nuts. Bake for 35 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.

LET THE CAKE COOL in the pan for 10 minutes and then run a knife around the sides. Turn the cake onto a wire rack and let it cool. Serve the cake almond side up. Store it covered at room temperature for up to 4  days or freeze for up to 3 months.

Reprinted with permission from “The Holiday Kosher Baker” © 2013 by Paula Shoyer, Sterling Epicure. Photography by Michael Bennett Kress.