When it comes to latkes, a lot of quibbles come up before the first potato is even peeled. Thick and hefty, or crispy-lacy? Do you hand-grate the potato or process it to mush? Squeeze out the liquid or let it be? Par-boil the potatoes, or avoid the potato altogether and head for the untrammeled wilds of zucchini with parmesan or yams with ginger? Can bacon be involved?
But all of these questions are nothing compared to the Big One. Which is, of course, OMG these latkes are SO GOOD why don’t you make them EVERY NIGHT???
This, of course, is a question for sages and Jewish mothers everywhere to contemplate. The answer may become clear in the aftermath of a good latke fry-up, when bits of shredded potato are shriveling to blackness all over the counter, and a fine mist of splattered oil surrounds the stove.
Right now, though, Chanukah has just begun, and latke enthusiasm is at its height. Why potato pancakes for Chanukah, you ask? First, there’s the holiday’s celebration of scrappiness trumping might, the humble potato standing in for the outnumbered, outpowered but triumphant Maccabees. Able to reclaim their desecrated temple, so the story goes, the Jews found only one day’s worth of oil for light, with the nearest source of consecrated oil a week’s journey away. Then the little miracle: the one day’s worth of oil burned for eight days, hence the eight days of Chanukah, and the dictum to fry, fry, fry.
Anything fried will work, and Jews around the world fry up all kinds of different things. In Israel, the go-to Chanukah treat is soufganiot, jelly-filled doughnuts dusted with powdered sugar. In Eastern Europe, however, winter meant root vegetables, most likely fried in chicken or goose fat, served with applesauce for sweetness.
Here in the Bay Area, we can do a little of each: potatoes for cultural tradition, fried in olive oil for religious significance, or just because it’s local and we use olive oil for everything, anyway. If you have chicken fat or goose fat or duck fat lying around looking for trouble, use it by all means, perhaps half-and-half with a mild vegetable oil like canola so that the simple potato taste isn’t clobbered by poultry-ness.
Now, on to technique. Since I am not your mother, or (more importantly) your new Jewish husband’s mother, nothing I tell you need influence your latke-making in the least if you already love your latkes. But if, sadly, you’ve been relying all these years on those nasty frozen ones that taste like wadded-up flannel pajamas, or your children have suddenly reached latke-eating age and you feel compelled to hand down a little tradition, even if otherwise you order in pad thai, burritos or aloo gobi every night of the week, here is everything you need to know.
First, if you’re going to fry, fry for a crowd. Making latkes is a festive event, and the more people around, the less you’ll notice what a giant mess all that spattering oil has made of your kitchen.
Once you start in with the latkes, you won’t have the focus or energy for anything else. Since most people’s appetite for potato pancakes is limitless, especially if they’re only made once a year, you should put together some satisfying one-pot thing the night before, like hot beet borscht or a slow-cooked brisket, with challah or rye bread on the side. This also gives you something to throw at your guests as they start circling the stove and eyeing your spatula like starving hyenas, drawn by the irresistible diner whiff of sizzling potatoes, onion, and grease.
Second, grate by hand. Like writing thank you notes or taking off your mascara before bed, this process looms much larger in the imagination than in actual minutes spent. Use the coarse holes on a big box grater, and you’ll get perfect texture and minimal clean-up. No need to peel the potatoes, especially if you’re using organic spuds.
Alternate onion and potato as you grate, since the onion juices will help keep the potato shreds from oxidizing into gray yuck as you go. Another thing: don’t grate more than you can fry up in a few batches. If you’re frying for a crowd, don’t be tempted to grate up ahead of time. Liquid will seep, potatoes will blacken, and you’ll end up with a bowl of unpleasant, gray-black soupy sludge that even frying cannot redeem. Instead, grate, mix, fry, repeat. (See “Why don’t we have these every night?”, above.)
Once your potatoes and onions are grated, scoop the shreds into a large colander set over a big bowl. Now, get your hands into that potato mound and act like you’re wringing a pair of very wet socks. Squeeze and wring, squeeze and wring, releasing as much liquid as possible. Sex educator and cultural critic Susie Bright, a woman who knows how to find the right tool for the job, swears by a potato ricer for this; others load their taters into clean tea towels and wring away. Me, I’m a two-hands, no-equipment kind of lady, but follow your inclinations. When all the potatoes look well-wrung, step back and let the liquid collected in the bowl stand for a couple of minutes.
Meanwhile, separate your eggs, dropping the egg whites into a big bowl and putting the yolks aside. Hand the egg white to a helpful guest, and ask them to whisk them into stiff peaks. Here, technology helps; like natural childbirth, whisking egg whites with nothing but muscle tone and a whisk is admirable but achingly slow. If you don’t have a hand-held electric mixer, just tell people to pass the whisk along when they tire out. Line a cookie sheet with paper towels and place it near (but not within catching-on-fire range of) the stove.
Lift up your colander of potatoes and onion. Underneath, you’ll see a pool of brownish liquid with a squeaky layer of pinkish-tan potato starch at the bottom. Pour off the liquid, then dump the grated potato on top of the starch. Add the egg yolks, the matzoh meal or flour, and plenty of salt and pepper. Mix it all together, being sure to scrape up the extra starch from the bottom of the bowl. Track down that bowl of egg whites. Quickly, scoop the whites onto the potato mixture, and using a down-and-around motion, fold the whites into the grated potato.
Heat up a couple of wide, heavy frying pans (cast iron works best). Add about 1/2 inch of oil to each one, and get that oil really good and hot. (Buy a fresh bottle of oil for this endeavor. You’ll need a lot more than you think.) When a shred of potato sputters and bubbles, slide as many large spoonfuls of potato as you can fit into the pan without crowding. Fry, turning once, until pancakes are a rich mahogany brown. Drain on paper towels, blotting off as much grease as possible so they’ll stay crisp. If necessary, keep the first batch warm in a 250°F oven while you fry up another round.
As you fry, your friends and family will exhort you to come, sit down, eat. Ignore them. This is the martyrdom known to every latke maker: you must stand and work while others sit and enjoy. (See “Why don’t we have these every night?”, above.) Serve with sour cream and applesauce. You might think you could go all California and use salsa or fig chutney instead, but you would be wrong. Or not; maybe latkes are sensational with fig chutney. (Gravy, I’ve been told, is wonderful on matzoh balls.) But try trusting your inner grandmother first.
This recipe makes thin, crispy latkes, more hash brown than hockey puck, because you can always make room for one more latke when they’re light.
2 1/2 lbs potatoes, well scrubbed
1 large yellow onion, peeled
2 eggs, separated
3 tablespoons flour or matzoh meal
2 tsp salt, or to taste
Freshly ground pepper
Vegetable oil, for frying, or whatever fat you want (Yes, I’m sure bacon fat would be delicious, but really, must you?)
Sour cream and applesauce, for serving
1. Grate potatoes and onion alternately. Scoop grated mixture into a large colander suspended over a large bowl.
2. Squeeze and wring excess liquid out of potato mixture. Let potato mixture drain for a few minutes. Lift up colander, and pour off excess liquid below, reserving the layer of potato starch at the bottom. Dump grated potatoes on top of potato starch, and mix in egg yolks, flour, salt, and pepper, making sure to scrape the layer of potato starch into the mixture.
3. Beat egg whites to stiff peaks. Fold egg whites into potato mixture.
4. Heat 1/2 inch of vegetable oil in a heavy frying pan. Drop in a shred of potato; when it sizzles and bubbles, slide in as many large spoonfuls of potato mixture as you can without crowding. Fry over medium-high heat, turning once, until pancakes are well-browned. Add more oil as necessary for subsequent batches, but make sure to get it good and hot before adding the potatoes.
5. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately with sour cream and applesauce.
Makes about 20 latkes.