Our latkeh feast
Every Hanukah the grandchildren come 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 enjoy the feast with my family, instead of standing in the kitchen while the gang is fressing.* To assuage the conscience over a dinner of basically fried potatoes, I set down a big tossed salad on the table first, like the varied Rambam Salad.
Latkehs are easy to make if you have a food processor. I think of my Russian fore-mothers 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 cutting their fingers. They say that those women, tried by hard lives, never allowed themselves the luxury of tears except when grating onions gave them an excuse to weep. I have a far more comfortable existence than those ladies of a hundred years ago, but I still cry when I take the onions out of the food processor. Some things don’t change.
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.
*Yiddish for devouring.
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 odor of fried onions and potatoes will linger in the house for hours. I’ve woken up in the middle of the night hungry after a Hanukah feast, because the appetizing smell lingered and tickled and made me dream of golden latkehs topped with sour cream.
What’s your potato?
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’s not necessary if they’re well scrubbed and defects have been pared away.
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.
Housekeeper’s Tip: 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. Let it soak while you’re doing other things. When you put it in the washer later, it’ll clean up well. If you keep the towel lying around drying, 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 often keep two skillets going to accommodate the demand from the dining room. I find that a large spoon lifts the latkehs out of the skillet without breaking it, which a spatula tends to do.
The batter will get watery as you’re frying; this is because the grated potato releases juice on contact with salt. Drain the excess liquid as you work, or just avoid it when scooping batter out.
Taste the first one
Fry one latkeh at first. It will give you a baseline to determine what color it should be when it’s done and whether the batter needs more seasoning.
This is the way to reheat latkehs: 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 some of the oil is left behind.
Now bring on the sour cream and applesauce. Or maple syrup, as below. And happy Hanukah!
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