If you celebrate Hanukkah, you generally think of three traditional dishes: latkes, brisket, and jelly donuts. Why those three? Well, the latkes and donuts are made in oil, which relates back to the “miracle” associated with the Hannukah story. And brisket… well, brisket is pretty much acceptable during any Jewish holiday. Food Network decided to challenge four cooks to make twists on these traditional meals. Read on for more…
ULTIMATE HANUKKAH CHALLENGE: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Food Network has had holiday-oriented cooking challenge shows for years, but they’ve never had one for Hanukkah… until now. To celebrate the Festival of Lights, the Ultimate Hanukkah Challenge pits four cooks who have various levels of training against each other, asking them to put a twist on some traditional meals that are associated with the holiday.
The show is hosted by Molly Yeh of Girl Meets Farm, with Duff Goldman and Sharone Hakman as judges. All three of them are both great cooks and chefs of various kinds, and all three have institutional memories of the Hanuukah dishes made by their moms and bubbes, so they have their own expectations about each course.
First up: Latkes (or as the Yeh, who grew up near Chicago, calls them, “Latkees”). The idea is to make a latke as good as the best potato latke… but don’t use potatoes. The four contestants use things like Brussels sprouts, carrots, beets and zucchini, and make creative side dishes. Then comes brisket, and the challenge here is to make a tender and flavorful brisket in only 90 minutes — anyone who has worked with the tough cut of beef knows that 90 minutes isn’t nearly enough time. Finally, the cooks had to make doughnuts, namely a take on Sufganiyot, a filled jelly or cream doughnut made in Jewish homes (notice both the latkes and doughnuts involve a lot of oil… If you know about Hannukah’s origins, you’ll get it).
What Specials Will It Remind You Of?: Uh, every other cooking challenge show on the Food Network.
Performance Worth Watching: Molly Yeh was just adorable, not only being able to provide as strong expertise in what’s essentially Eastern European Jewish food as Goldman and Hakman. But among the contestants, Jeffrey Eisner, who is the only self-taught cook and whose popular Pressure Luck site has transformed him into an expert on cooking in an Instant Pot, has the funniest schtick, as well as the most creative mind. If he just learned how to present his food better…
Memorable Dialogue: Goldman and Hakman calling Yeh out for saying “latkees” was funny, but a good line was uttered by Ryan Costanza, the chef of Freedmans restaurant: “Everyone’s working from recipes that were snipped out of magazines or snipped out of old books and stuffed in a Rolodex, so it’s all classic grandma cooking.” No truer words could have been said.
Our Take: Why am I reviewing what looks to be a pretty standard Food Network cooking competition? Because Hanukkah has gotten the short end of the winter holiday stick for as long as I can remember, and when it takes the spotlight, like in recent Lifetime and Hallmark movies, the atmosphere is more Christmasy, with a few dreidels and menorahs sitting around. Will the holiday take center stage and be treated with respect?
I’m happy to say that the Ultimate Hanukkah Challenge was a pretty standard Food Network show, and that’s a good thing. While there seemed to be a few too many asides to explain the Hanukkah legend and the meanings of Yiddish words, the challenges were difficult and the cooks who were there took the competition very seriously. Even Molly’s exclamation of “oy vey!” when looking at someone’s overdone dish seemed genuine.
Duff Goldman has been Food’s go-to Jewish chef for a lot of years; even though he’s a cake maker, he’s judged more than enough of the network’s various shows to make him well versed in what’s a good dish. For instance, he called Eisner’s latke presentation like something a sixth grader would do, but said it was delicious. Hakman didn’t need to carry the comic relief role like Duff did, which allowed him to make nuanced takes on each dish.
The outcome was pretty predictable given how the last round went, but it does feel like the judges got things right, booting the way-too-confident Penny Davidi after the latke round, and pulling a “Hanukkah miracle” at the end of the brisket round.
One contestant we were intrigued with was Kwon Benowitz, whose backstory involved converting to Judaism when she married her husband, and the difficulties they had with their respective families because the marriage is mixed-race. There’s more to her story, and I hope she gets a chance to tell more of it.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Whether you celebrate Hanukkah or not, the Ultimate Hanukkah Challenge is a fun watch. But if you celebrate, you’ll watch and think of the Hanukkah dinners your mother and grandmother made. And that’s what a holiday special is all about, right?
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, Fast Company.com, RollingStone.com, Billboard and elsewhere.