DANBURY, Conn. -- When Danbury resident Bonnie Wunsch heard her name announced as the winner of the annual latke-making competition at the United Jewish Center's Hanukkah celebration, she was happily surprised.
“This is the first year I've won,” said Wunsch, who made sweet potato latkes with cinnamon brown sugar for the contest. “It was a Rachael Ray recipe that I added a little brown sugar and cinnamon to."
But she wasn't too pleased with them. “They weren't sticking together and I didn't care for them, but they won. ... Go figure,” she chuckled.
For Wunsch, making latkes has become a tradition for Hanukkah, which begins this year on Saturday evening, Dec. 24, and continues for eight consecutive days.
According to Penny M. Kessler, cantor at the United Jewish Center, Hanukkah celebrates the successful rebellion by the Jewish minority against the Greeks, who were — at one time — the most powerful military and cultural force in the world.
“They had conquered Israel, outlawed the practice of Judaism and taken over and defiled the Temple in Jerusalem,” Kessler said. "After the Jews had reclaimed and made the Temple ritually clean, they discovered that there was not enough oil to keep the Temple's eternal light lit beyond a day or so.
"But a great miracle happened and that little bit of oil lasted for eight days until the supply could be replenished, Kessler said.
Today, Hanukkah is celebrated by lighting a Menorah, adding one additional candle for each of the eight days and enjoying foods typically fried in oil such as latkes, which are potato pancakes.
The United Jewish Center has held a latke-making contest -- called a “Latkepalooza” -- for about five years, and Wunsch has participated in it every year.
Other latkes in the competition included sweet potato, jalapeno, spinach, chocolate chip, zucchini, sauerkraut and traditional.
“I think it's fun to make new types — some are keepers, while some are lots of work for not much difference,” Wunsch said.
Over the years, she has made squash, carrot and corn latkes, as well as savory latkes, which include a curry spice.
“I still want to try sweet potato and apple,” she said.
Wunsch takes latkes to her in-laws house in Melville, N.Y., where she, her husband Alan and their 13-year-old son Ryan go to celebrate Hanukkah every year.
Hanukkah is special to Wunsch because it’s the one time of year she gets together with her extended family.
“We see my sister-in-law and her family, as well as other extended family members, including cousins. About 14 to 20 people show up each year," she said.
They light the Menorah, sings songs and enjoy each other’s company.
“We just hang and exchange gifts. The kids play dreidel and other games that they haven’t played in awhile.”
For dinner, there are deli trays of corn beef, pastrami, turkey, roast beef, coleslaw, macaroni salad and homemade applesauce.
For dessert, there are munchkins and doughnuts — and of course, latkes.
Over the years, Wunsch has hosted Hanukkah for her next door neighbors, congregants from the United Jewish Center and colleagues from her job as executive director of the sorority Alpha Epsilon Phi in Danbury.
Wunsch’s most unusual Hanukkah celebration? It was in 2013, the year Hanukkah fell on Thanksgiving.
“We had ‘Thanksgivingkkah,’” she said. “I decorated my table with dreidels and made sweet potato latkes.”