Hannukah (or Chanukah, if you like) – and almost latkeh party time.
Every Hanukkah the kids bring the grandchildren over, bright eyed, full of mischief, and hungry for those potato pancakes. I start frying and freezing a couple of days ahead because I want to be at the table with my family, not standing in the kitchen flipping latkehs while everyone else is enjoying being together. And one of the good things about latkehs is how well they reheat.
Latkehs are easy to make if you have a food processor. I think of my Russian foremothers who grated the potatoes and onions by hand and feel respect for those long-ago ladies bent over a box grater, weeping onion tears and sometimes getting fingers cut. Although I also weep onion tears when I scrape the grated vegetables out of the food processor. Some things are inevitable.
In fact, the whole latkeh process, except for the electrically managed grating, is done pretty much as my great-grandmother did it. The grated mass still has to be squeezed out by hand. I still mix the batter with a spoon. And there’s no way to fry a latkeh that I know of, except by dropping the batter into hot oil.
I wonder what kind of oil my great-grandmother would have used, back in the Ukraine 150 years ago. I choose sunflower seed oil, but any good-quality, neutral-tasting oil does well. You must keep the windows open while you’re frying, or the house will smell wonderfully of latkehs for hours. I’ve woken up in the middle of the night hungry after a latkeh feast, because the appetizing odor lingered and tickled and suggested I eat. Which I’m glad to say I resisted. Anyway, all the latkehs had long been devoured.
What potatoes to use? American recipes call for Russet potatoes, but we have other varieties in Israel. I use a thin-skinned red variety available in all our markets. I also don’t peel potatoes for latkehs; I think it an unnecessary step if they’re well scrubbed and I’ve gone over them with a knife to take out anything I don’t like.
To keep your latkehs crisp, you must squeeze the grated mass of potatoes and onions in a kitchen towel or strong paper towels. And I mean squeeze. Use a towel with a loose weave to get the most juice out. Spread half the raw mass out in a plump snake in the middle of the towel. Then fold the edges of the towel over and squeeze like you’ve never squoze before.
You might need to do this in two or three batches. Keep an empty bowl handy, with a little dish soap in it. When you’re done squeezing the vegetables, rinse the towel out under the tap, drop it in the bowl, and fill the bowl with warm water. It’ll wash easily that way. If you keep the towel lying around until later, the juices will turn it grey and make it hard to wash. Don’t ask.
Once your batter is mixed, use a 1/4-cup measuring cup to drop it into the hot oil. Then, and this is important, use the bottom of the measuring cup or a spatula to flatten the latkeh out so it spreads out thinly. You want your latkehs flat; a plump latkeh may remain underdone inside. Depending on the size of your skillet, fry two or three at a time, no more. Space around the latkehs helps keep them crisp.
I’ll be frying and freezing latkehs, a batch at a time, over the next several nights, to have everything ready on party night. This is the way to do it: pre-heat the oven to 200º C – 400º F. About 10 minutes before you intend to serve, take the frozen latkehs out of the freezer and layer them onto a baking sheet. They take five minutes to heat up, and taste as fresh as when taken out of the oil.
An advantage of reheating is that you leave some of the oil behind.
Now bring on the sour cream and applesauce. And happy Hanukkah!