I finally had a chance today to make latkes, that most quintessential of Hannukah foods to American Jews. In Israel sufganiyot, jelly-filled doughnuts topped with powdered sugar, take the humble potato pancake’s place as star holiday treat. But while I have allowed myself to accept the sufganiya‘s hallowed status in my adopted country, to me latkes will always be the food that, more than any other, signals Hannukah. It’s not Hannukah without latkes, nor do I tend to make the potato pancakes at any other time of year.
On the one hand I suppose I maybe should. Despite the, well, grating nature of grating a bunch of potatoes (yes, I think I’m funny), latkes are not horribly difficult to make. And you can’t really go wrong with fried onions and potatoes. But on the other hand, if I ate them year-round, I don’t think they’d be so special anymore. They are inextricably linked to Hannukah. And so now is when I make them. (My disinclination to make them more often may also have something to do with 1) laziness 2) not being super into potatoes 3) the fact that last year I grated off a nice section of my thumb grating potatoes.)
But seriously, they’re not that difficult. Just be careful with your thumbs. You grate some potatoes and onions together. Use a cheesecloth to wring the starchy water out of the grated vegetables, making sure to reserve this water.
Add salt, pepper, eggs, and a bit of matzah meal or flour to the grated vegetables. Drain off the reserved water to reveal white starchy sediment at the bottom of the bowl. Add this starch to the potato-onion mixture and stir to combine.
Shape patties. Then, in oil hot enough to fry the latkes but not so hot they’ll burn (I set my burner to medium-high and, if necessary, readjust as I go), put 3-5 patties, as many as will fit without crowding the pan. After 2-3 minutes, when the bottoms are golden brown, flip the latkes.
After another 2-3 minutes, when both sides are golden brown, remove the pancake onto a plate topped with paper towels. Salt the latke, then blot well with paper towel to remove grease.
Unfortunately, in Israel it’s impossible to find Russet Potatoes. This type of potato is best for frying. But that’s apparently not high priority for Israelis. Yes, that’s right. The people that eat falafel, sabich, and shawarma all stuffed with “chips” (pronounced cheeeps, aka French Fries), are not particularly concerned about using inferior potatoes. According to an Israeli agriculture expert, Israelis simply prefer the look and texture of non-Russet potatoes:
The Israeli market demands a large potato with a smooth peel that is light colored and its appearance pleasant to the eye. The taste is unimportant.
So I used the potatoes easily available in Israel, but if you’re in a country with access to Russets, I recommend you choose those instead. I’ve given instructions for both types of potato in the recipe.
Latkes can be served in a number of ways. The classic, though, is either applesauce or sour cream. As a child, I liked a combination. Tonight I served them with sour cream, smoked salmon, and green onions. These toppings made for a delicious, if non-traditional, flavor combination. The sourness of the sour cream and saltiness of the smoked salmon perfectly complemented the oily, starchy potatoes, with the green onions adding zip and color. Next time I might do a poached egg on top as well.
Regardless of what accompaniments you give them, these latkes are sure to please. After all, they’re my mom’s recipe! And if you know her, you’ll know anything she has her hands behind is sure to be a winner.
parve | serves 2-3
4 russet potatoes, or 8 small white potatoes
1 large onion, or 2 medium ones
2 large eggs
1 heaping tsp salt
1 heaping tsp pepper
2 tbsp matzah meal (or flour if matzah meal unavailable)
Peanut oil, corn oil, or other neutral oil, for frying
Using a box grater, grate the potatoes and onion. Place about 1/6 of the grated mixture in a cheesecloth and wring to remove water. Collect the liquid in a medium bowl. Place the dried-out vegetables in a larger bowl. Repeat until you’ve dried out all the potatoes and onions. Set medium bowl with liquid aside. To the potato-onion mixture add eggs, salt, pepper, and matzah meal. After three minutes, pour out the reserved water from the medium bowl. At the bottom of the bowl, there should be white starchy residue. Scrape this into the potato-onion mixture. Then stir the potato-onion mixture until well-combined.
Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil until one-inch high. When oil is hot, begin making the latkes. Using your hands, shape some batter into a round disk, then use a metal spatula to put the latke into the oil. Add more latkes to oil, shaping as you go. Do not crowd the pan. Flip each latke when bottom is golden brown, which should take about 2-3 minutes. Wait another 2-3 minutes, until both sides of pancake are golden brown, then remove pancake onto paper towels. Salt to taste and blot with more paper towel. Repeat until all latke batter is finished.