A shorter post this week. Some of you have requested apareve dessert recipe: many of you serve meat (as is the custom) at your Friday night dinners, and want a dessert that can be served with a kosher meat meal. There are many wonderful dairy-free dessert recipes – though, admittedly, finding one can seem challenging in a culture where “dessert” has become nigh-synonymous with “dairy.”
This orange-semolina biscuit recipe is delicious and unusual – rosemary is a key star here. It also is a refreshing and light pareve dessert option.
This recipe is my creation, but it incorporates semolina – an ingredient with a long Jewish history. Semolina is made from purified coarse wheat middlings, a product produced while making flour from durum wheat. The use of semolina is common across the Mediterranean – you may be familiar with it from making pasta or couscous; in the Middle East, it is a common ingredient in breads and desserts alike. (Including your correspondent’s very favorite dessert, galaktoboureko.) Semolina has been consumed by Jews since antiquity: it is mentioned as
“fine flour” in the Book of Kings as being part of King Solomon’s provisions;it is also referenced at several points in the Talmud. Since then, semolina has been a frequent starring ingredient in the Jewish cuisines of Iraq and Turkey. Most famous perhaps is kubbeh – little filled dumplings of semolina that are as delightfully soft and yummy as a matzah ball. Elsewhere, semolina found its way into dessert cakes – such as the Sephardi shamali– and soups, such as the semolina soups served in both Moroccan and German traditions.
The inclusion of semolina in this cookie is a nod to this tradition – and the dense semolina balances out the oranges’ sweet, light flavor. Rosemary brings out the freshness of the oranges. I was introduced to the idea of baking with rosemary by my friend Yael – and though unusual, it really adds something quite magical to a citrus dessert. Even in the dead of winter, rosemary makes a cookie or cake feel summery and sunny.
Orange Semolina Biscuits with Rosemary
distantly based on a recipe by Yael Wiesenfeld
1 1/4 cups white granulated sugar
zest of two medium-sized oranges (about 1/4 cup – zest beforejuicing your oranges)
juice of two medium sized oranges (about 1/3 cup)
1/2 cup olive oil
1 1/4 tsps dried rosemary
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup water (or brandy*)
1 packet instant yeast
3/4 cup semolina flour
1 1/4 cups white all-purpose flour
1. Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Line a 9″x9″ (23cmx23cm) pan with parchment paper. (You can grease it with oil, but the risk of your cake being difficult to remove increases greatly.)
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the zest and sugar. You can use a whisk or spoon.
3. Add the orange juice, olive oil, rosemary, and salt to the zest sugar, and mix thoroughly until combined.
4. Add the water/brandy and yeast and mix in thoroughly.
5. Add the semolina and mix in thoroughly – until the grains are invisible. Because semolina is thick, I recommend adding it 1/4 cup at a time to avoid clogging your whisk or spoon.
6. Add the flour 1/4 cup at a time and mix in thoroughly. At the end, you should have a thick batter. If your batter is too thick and getting doughy, add a tablespoon or two of water. If your batter is too thin, add a tablespoon or two more of flour.
7. Pour the batter into your parchment-lined pan and spread evenly.
8. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the top is brown and a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cool.
9. Now, the fun part. Lift the entire “big biscuit” out of the pan and place on a cutting board, and slice into squares about 2 1/4 inches”x2 1/4 inches (about 6cmx6cm.) You should get sixteen biscuits or so. You can slice bigger or smaller as needed; I often do about 1 1/2 inches x 1 1/2 inches to make cute little biscuits. I recommend slicing the big biscuit into quarters first to have a more manageable slicing process, and to more easily create even and “pretty” biscuits.
10. The biscuits keep in sealed containers at room temperature for up to four days. I recommend serving the biscuits with hot tea.
*Note: if you want a fluffier cookie, swapping the water for brandy provides additional sugar for the yeast to react with, and also makes for a slightly sweeter final product.
“The history of the bagel suggests that Americans’ shifting, blended, multi-ethnic eating habits are signs neither of postmodern decadence, ethnic fragmentation, nor corporate hegemony. If we do not understand how a bagel could sometimes be Jewish, sometimes be “New York,” and sometimes be American, or why it is that Pakistanis now sell bagels to both Anglos and Tejanos in Houston, it is in part because we have too hastily assumed that our tendency to cross cultural boundaries in order to eat ethnic foods is a recent development – and a culinary symptom of all that has gone wrong with contemporary culture.” (Gabaccia 1998: 5)
I love, love, love this book. Donna Gabaccia – a badass professor at the University of Toronto (formerly of UNC-Charlotte) – wrote a food history in the 1990’s that deconstructed both the idea of “ethnic food” and how mixing and matching food traditions both created American cuisine(s) and also ideas of what culinary boundaries are. Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine plays a big role in this story, and Gabaccia opens up with a tale about a Pakistani immigrant who opens up a “New York bagel” shop in Texas. In many ways, this exploration is both a celebration of how significantly various cuisines from differently-marginalized groups (Jews included) changed American cuisine, and how ultimately useless “authenticity” is as a culinary term. Is authenticity really just a performance of eating whatever everyone else thinks we eat?
On another level, this book is a must-have for another reason: if you ever needed more proof of how thoroughly important indigenous American foods are, the first chapter of this book offers a lot. Corn, beans, squash, pumpkin, turkeys, tomatoes, chili peppers, baking powder…potatoes. Potatoes. Where would “authentic Jewish” cuisine be without these New World foods?
Gabaccia, Donna R. We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans. Cambridge, Harvard: 1998. Available on Amazon.com.
Few Ashkenazi dishes invite as many reveries or passionate opinions as the potato kugel. It seems that everyone I talk to – everyone that has some Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, that is – has a) an often cherished memory of eating potato kugel, b) an opinion on how (or whether) it should be made, and c) a forsworn allegiance to a certain person’s or place’s version of the dish. For those of you who have not had a potato kugel, it is a dense and starchy potato casserole, slightly crispy on the outside and very chewy on the inside. It is one of Jewish cuisine’s many carbohydrate-loaded delicacies, and is utterly delicious.
I briefly touched upon the kugel’s origins in my post on corn kugel / pashtida; let us recap in more detail. Kugels initially began as spherical, dense flour-based casseroles cooked within the Sabbath cholent stew. Even today, this practice still persists in some communities – though the Yiddish word “kugel” has since evolved from its original German meaning of “sphere.” In the nineteenth century, it also became common to bake the kugel as a stand-alone item – especially as the noodle kugel became more popular. Kugels were made with many things – and especially with the new star of Eastern European cuisine in the late 18th and early 19th century, the potato. Kugels also became popular with the other peoples Jews lived among – in Lithuania, kugelis is still a popular dish. Thus when Ashkenazi Jews fanned out from theAlter Heim to North America, Argentina, South Africa, the United Kingdom, France, and beyond…the kugel travelled with them. And stuck – so that even today, you can buy prepared kugels in kosher supermarkets and have recipes by star cooks for them. (For more on how and why they stuck, I direct you to an excellent master’s thesis by Avery Robinson.) Even the New York Times Magazine recently ran an article on potato kugels – complete with a recipe prefaced by the title “Almost Traditional Jewish Cooking.” Almost traditional indeed – for even as it is homemade, it continues to evolve.
I find that the kugel is an interesting starting point to discuss Jewish authenticity. In some ways it is considered the Ur-authentic: a kugel is what so many imagine must have graced the tables of our ancestors in Eastern Europe; the dish is often presented as a traditional Ashkenazi dish at potlucks and food festivals and the like. Yet the kugel itself has evolved so much over the centuries – is it authentic only if it is made in a cholent? Only if it is made with flour? Can a potato kugel, made from a tuber that only became widespread in Eastern Europe in the 19th century, be authentic? And then there is the whole matter of the potato kugel being served alongside very … non-traditional Ashkenazi dishes. I myself have eaten potato kugel with: stir-fried bok choy (very Ashkenazi), chili con carne (ditto), and stewed collard greens (completely native to the shtetl). And if it is served by an otherwise unengaged Jew, or a non-Jew (gasp!), is it still authentic? If anything, the kugel is a reminder that authenticity becomes this impossible fashion contest, and perhaps always is.
Yet beyond this question of the authentic there is this beautiful idea that the kugel brings one “home.” Even today, there is something for so many of us Ashkenazi Jews delightfully heimish – that’s Yiddish for “home-like,” in a domestic and cuddly sort of way – about a potato kugel. Kugels, as the New York Times article noted, are “good or bad,” and it is the “good” kugel (though that term is so highly subjective!) that can bring about reveries. Or, as a friend who makes a phenomenal potato kugel once said, “it is the heimishkeit that makes it good!” It is also something that is often cooked not by recipe, but by “eyeball.” I myself make potato kugel without measurements or consulting directions, but rather from a family tradition. After all, it is something that I myself ate growing up.
Grated potatoes, ready to morph into kugel! Photo mine, January 2016
Mixing the batter with the potatoes and the onions. Photo mine, January 2016.
My recipe is an approximation – as I noted, I make this kugel by heart, based on my grandmother’s recipe. It is a flexible and versatile recipe that pairs well with many dishes, and you can adjust it accordingly. Let me know what you do with it – and also if you have a recipe of your own you’d like to share!
A last note: one big difference between various kugel recipes is the binding agent used to mesh the kugel together. Most common are flour and matzoh meal, but my friend Joshua introduced me to the use of potato starch, which also makes a fine kugel – though one that is rather denser than the one I have here. This kugel can also be made with sweet potatoes; that is a common American variation.
Based on the recipe of Annushka Smit Freiman. See an additional note on ingredients below.
5 medium-to-large potatoes, peeled
One medium onion, diced
Two scallions, chopped
6 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/3 cup oil
1 tbsp salt
1.5 tsp black pepper
1 tsp ground thyme
2/3 cup flour
Oil, to grease the pan
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Grease a 9×9 pan for a deeper kugel, 9×13 for a slightly shallower kugel.
Grate your potatoes with a somewhat wide grate. I grate by hand because I like full control over the consistency, but you can do this with a food processor too. To avoid discoloration, keep the gratings in water in a large mixing bowl.
Squeeze the liquid out of the potato gratings. Or, if you’ve been storing the potatoes in water, strain then squeeze.
Add the chopped onions and scallions, mix in thoroughly with the potatoes.
Add the eggs, oil, and spices, and mix in thoroughly.
Add the flour in two batches and mix in thoroughly until well-combined into the mixture. At this point you should have potatoes and onions in a thick batter. If your batter is too thick, add a bit of oil or an egg. If it is very watery, add more flour.
Pour the mixture into your greased pan and make sure that it is evenly spread. Smooth it out on the top with a fork.
Bake for 45 minutes – 1 hour in your oven, or until the top is golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean.
Note: kugels, by nature, are quite flexible. One can swap the oil for butter for a dairy kugel, or chicken fat (schmaltz) for a meat one. I sometimes use a smaller onion and add a chopped leek rather than a scallion, or I forgo the rather heterodox scallion altogether and use more onion instead.
So I have a thing for old cookbooks. Take me to a used bookshop and the first things I look for are old cookbooks. And maps, but that’s another story for another time. The biggest Jewish cultural event for me this fall was neither Matisyahu’s frumspringa nor Netanyahu’s Hitler gaffe, but rather the release of Eve Jochnowitz’s brilliant translation of a 1938 vegetarian, Yiddish cookbook by Fania Lewando. One of my most treasured family heirlooms is my maternal grandmother’s neatly-typed cookbook of her pantheon of recipes, and I’ve lovingly leafed through my other grandmother’s stack of aging, 1950’s “Jewish” cookbooks.
So, understandably, I was excited to find one day during my lunch break at work a fully digitized kosher cookbook from 1874! An Easy and Economical Book of Jewish Cookery, Under Strictly Orthodox Principles, by Estrella Atrutel, is not only free for your perusal online, but also a stunning time capsule into what might have been laid on the table for a wealthy Anglo-Jewish family in Victorian England. It is not only filled with detailed recipes that would have required lengthy, mostly female, and probably employed labor to make, but also has lines such as “send to the table” and requirements for all manner of fancy cooking implements. (That said, so do today’s cookbooks. Who among ye has a strawberry huller?)
Browsing through the cookbook, one who is familiar with the mostly Ashkenazi, heavily kitschified notion of “Jewish food” would be surprised. One sees nary a recipe for lokshen kugel and the German kleis rather than kneidlach.P’tcha appears, but as an aspic, and carp meets its fate soused rather than as gefilte fish. Instead, one sees renditions of French and British cuisine, much like the rest of wealthy Europe at this time: you have “Butter Cressy Soup” and sole à la Normande and charlottes, and of course the more unusual Brains Omelets (exactly what it sounds like) and Mock Turtle Soup. While there are the “Jewish” things here and there –fried fish and my beloved quince jam, both brought to England by Sephardic immigrants, have cameo appearances – it seems to a casual reader that Anglo-Jewry was trying to cook in a most “European” fashion. Which was totally true.
Let us not forget that upper-crust Anglo-Jewry wanted to be, well, English upper-class. In a day and age where knowing what is “authentic” acts as a marker of upper-class status, and the performance of “true” ethnic identity is celebrated and guarded, it is difficult to recall that for much of Jewish history – and even, especially in the State of Israel – “authenticity” was definitely neither sought nor celebrated. Today, people send their children to prohibitively expensive day schools and serve “long lost” Jewish dishes at their Shabbat tables. But in the 1870’s, a well-off Jewish family sought instead to reflect the English upper-class culture they sought to enter: schooling in the Western tradition, dishes more or less close to haute cuisine française, and certainly not speaking such “dialects” as Ladino or Yiddish. Men wore top hats, women the fashion of the day. And, as I have amply noted, this extended to the dinner table: because part of being like the upper crust was eating like (and sometimes, just eating) the upper crust.
So dishes like a baked apple pudding meant more than simply something delicious: it was part and parcel of a nexus of class and ethnicity that was performed. Of course, baked apple dishes have a long tradition in Jewish cooking. Apple cake has been a traditional Rosh Hashanah dish for centuries, as have been baked apples in some communities. (Both became even more popular in the United States.) So an apple pudding was not “out of tradition.” But it also was part of cooking and eating as similarly to the then – and still – very anti-Semitic English upper class as possible. You could be rich and white and British, but kosher and Jewish and “traditional” all at the same time. Many tried this: not just in England, but in America, in South Africa, in France, and elsewhere. This sort of recipe is as reflective of Jewish history as are the “authentic” apple cakes andtaiglach – which, as I continue to note on this blog, were also once considered to be newfangled and foreign.
Two friends and I decided to try the recipe out ourselves one day. We converted the weight measurements to cups and teaspoons, acquired the ingredients, guessed the oven temperature, and set about our task. We did elect to swap out the suet – beef fat – for butter, especially since kosher suet is rather pricy. By and large, the recipe worked in terms of taste – we got an apple pudding that was certainly nice to eat. But the recipe was also…well, weird. We realized we had too much apple filling for not enough dough – we got one and two-thirds layers of dough, rather than the promised four. Not to mention that the apple filling, though good, was…lemony. Very, very lemony. Very, very, very lemony. Some of it, perhaps, may have been taste. Yet I think there was another fact at work.
This is the hazard of converting the cryptic and sometimes jarring guesswork of the past. What counts as a “good size” apple in 1874 is different from one today, and the instruments of cooking change. What, for example, is a “pudding basin?” But more importantly, it also demonstrates how cooking by “eye” can be so temporally and geographically inflected. I pride myself on cooking by “eye” and “knowing” when things are done. So did Estella Atrutel – all of her recipes assume a basic knowledge of cooking and food. Yet it is when we communicate these ideas to others that something can get lost across time, across space, across assumptions. I mean, the English upper-class might have actively prized rather than enjoyed lemony, lemony, lemony apples. On the other hand, I wonder if Mrs. Atrutel could cook a shakshouka or Jerusalem kugel from my directions.
I made the recipe again, with a few adjustments. In order to counteract the overwhelming flavor of lemon, I reduced the lemon peel to a fraction of the original recipe. Meanwhile, I expanded the dough to reflect the fact that our apples today are far larger than those in Atrutel’s, and to have the same alternation that she did. I also added a touch of salt to the dough – it adds a tang that pairs nicely with the sweet, lemony apples. Finally, this recipe is dairy, whereas Atrutel’s original was made with suet and was thus “meat.” Bake and enjoy!
Baked Apple Pudding
Based on a recipe by Estella Atrutel printed in 1874 in An Easy and Economical Book of Jewish Cookery, Under Strictly Orthodox Principles
Adjusted to an American kitchen in the 2010s.
2 cups white, sifted flour
8 oz (one stick) butter, softened
1 ½ tsp salt
1 ½ tsp granulated sugar
3 medium-sized Granny Smith apples, cored and diced (you can also peel them)
¼ cup raisins
Zest of one lemon
1 cup brown sugar
1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
Butter, to grease the pan
Brown sugar and ground cinnamon, for the bottom of the pan
Optional: ¼ cup slivered almonds
Put the apples, raisins, spices, and lemon zest in a pan. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Cook until the apples are soft and the water has significantly reduced, stirring occasionally.
While the apples cook, make the dough. Chop the butter into small pieces. Then, in a large bowl, combine the butter, flour, salt, and sugar with a pastry blender or fingertips until you have clumps of dough. Add about ¼-½ cup of water to the dough, and mix to form a clump of smooth, slightly sticky dough. Roll out the dough on a cutting board until about ½ an inch thick. Cut in half.
Preheat your oven to 400 F. Grease a small baking pan – 8×8 works fine. Cover the bottom with a light coat of brown sugar and cinnamon.
Let the apple mixture cool a bit after cooking. Meanwhile, take half the dough and cover the bottom of the pan with it.
Now, spoon the apple mixture – draining out remaining water – over the dough. Cover the apple mixture with the other half of the dough.
Bake for twenty minutes, or until the dough has browned nicely. Serve with ice cream or custard. The bottom should be caramelized!
Since starting this blog, I’ve been asked at least ten times when I will be making kugel. (The answer has always been “soon.”) Kugel, for those who are uninitiated, is a traditional Ashkenazi Jewish carbohydrate casserole made of potatoes, noodles, or root vegetables. Recipes for kugel date back to the Middle Ages, and are incredibly varied. Traditionally cooked in a spherical bowl within the Saturday cholent, it is now more frequently baked. The dense pudding is a fixture of American Ashkenazi cuisine – and a delicious one at that. We argue over our recipes, over our preferences, over the fat we use in the kugel. Even Martha Stewart, the goyish-estgoythat ever goyed, has a kugel recipe.Kugels matter.
There is also a dish related to kugel: the pashtida. Imagine a quiche, but perhaps a bit eggier and a lot less cheesy. (Still just as wobbly.) Then, take away the crust – and you basically have a pashtida. In Israel and some parts of the Diaspora, the pashtida is an extremely common dish: be it out of zucchini, eggplant, or cauliflower. Many, in fact, consider the pashtida the hallmark of so-called “Israeli” cuisine – there is even a book you can buy in Israel simply called “Pashtidot.” But is it really Israeli?
Pashtida is a dish that actually has a surprisingly long history – almost as long as that of the kugel. Rashi, the great medieval French rabbi-cum-blacksmith-cum-scholar, mentions a dish called “pashtida” in his legal commentaries (link in French), and food historians think that pashtida likely derives from the Italian pasticcio (link in Hebrew). Various forms of casseroles and “pies” were consumed by Jews in France, Italy, and Germany – and throughout the Old World – from the medieval era, and such a dish was likely popular for special occasions and Shabbat meals alike. Since for a very long time kugels were far more common in Northern and Eastern Europe, the dishes only interacted in certain areas – and even then, a kugel was more often than not cooked within the Saturday cholent.
In Palestine and Israel, the dishes intermingled further. The Hebrew Academy, on its hell-bent mission to eliminate Yiddish from the mouths of Hebrew speakers, suggested that pashtida become the replacement for kugel as early as 1912. Pashtida became, for the largely Ashkenazi Zionists, the “replacement kugel,” especially after the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. Yet both kugels and pashtidot are popular in the State of Israel today – and are largely treated as separate dishes. Kugel, meanwhile, became a mainstay of American Jewish cuisine, far more frequently baked in large quantities than cooked within a Saturday lunchtime cholent. In South Africa, the kugel was so popular that it soon became a slang term for a materialistic Jewish woman.
Mixing the eggs and the sour cream…
…and then we add the corn and spices…
…and soon, it is ready to bake. (But flour first.) Photos mine, December 2015.
Both dishes changed significantly in the 1950s, in Israel and America. In the latter country, Ashkenazi Jews had not only become more affluent and prosperous, but also desired more to be integrated into mainstream white suburban culture. Dishes like kugel now needed to meet both “American” tastes and reflect a certain sort of middle-class propriety. Meanwhile, in Israel, food rationing followed by a growth in industrial foodstuffs, combined with a homogenization of cuisine, meant that pashtidot became more common and began to include new ingredients. In both Israel and the United States, dishes with canned corn became quite popular – including corn kugel and pashtidat tiras (corn pashtida). In the 1950s, a time obsessed with convenience and industrial foods, a can of corn was quite a “natural” ingredient to include. Canned corn had become popular a few decades earlier, but a more Americanized (in the US) or Westernized (in Israel) population embraced the food to include in “traditional” dishes. In any case, canned corn is a rather delicious addition to Jewish cuisine.
We often ignore the 1950s in our relentless pursuit of “authenticity,” without remembering that it was those who grew up with the “authentic” that created the food of the 1950s. Things like pashtida and canned corn were seen not as “invasions” of “real Jewish cuisine,” but rather as “progress” and…something delicious, something easy to make, something to feed a family. I mean, Jewish cuisine has always evolved over the ages – there was a time when p’tchawas newfangled, a time when kneidlachwere newfangled, a time when rugelachwere newfangled. The 1950s with its corn kugels and Osem soup powders were simply another part of the evolution of Jewish cuisine. And a corn casserole is not the worst fate for a cuisine.
The difference between a pashtida and a kugel is hard to suss out sometimes, and with corn this problem is certainly apparent. Is the casserole too eggy to be a kugel? Is it too solid to be a pashtida? Is it a pashtida and a kugel? If anything, it is reflective of the changing language – and changing nature – of Jewish food. One person’s “authentic” kugel is another’s “modern” pashtida is another’s “kugel when meat and pashtida when dairy.” To a certain extent, I am tempted to say here: “f**k nuance, and pass the casserole.”
Though I myself would probably say a pashtida before a kugel for the following recipe – I think of kugels as more solid. I promise an “unequivocally kugel” recipe in the near future.
I created the following recipe myself – I found the pashtida recipes to be too cheesy or complex for a dish meant to be a simple weeknight dinner; the kugels, on the other hand, did not offer the unapologetically eggy texture of a good pashtida. If you want a richer product, add some more sour cream or, if you’re feeling a bit more classy, ricotta. For a thicker kugel, add more flour. I do wonder: would this dish work with an addition of chili peppers? If you try it out, let me know!
This dish is delightfully simple to make and is particularly good for those of you out there who are beginner cooks, or just becoming accustomed to the life of the kitchen.
If you ask most American Jews about Hanukkah, they will immediately think of a few things: candles, winter, and latkes. The latter – delicious potato fritters – are so popular that many non-Jews start to harangue their Jewish friends in late November: “when are the latkes coming?” Indeed, I have been so harangued. There is something delightfully heimish (cozy and warm-feelings) about biting into the starchy goodness of a freshly fried latke; it is, perhaps, one of the best parts of Hanukkah.
As I wrote in my post about doughnuts, Hanukkah has the delightful tradition of foods fried in fantastic amounts of oil. This tradition sources from the miracle of the oil at the Second Temple, where – after prizing the Temple from Greek occupiers – the Maccabees only found one day’s worth of oil, which burned for eight days in the ritual menorah. From this incident comes the command to eat oily food – and why make a salad dressing when you can fry stuff? Already in the Middle Ages, fritters were a common Hanukkah food – the word latke, meaning patch, probably emerged then. When the potato reached Eastern Europe in the 18th century, they were simply integrated into the tradition. And boy, are we grateful.
People always ask me about “authentic” latkes, but I prefer to note how the latke undoes our notions of “authenticity.” Firstly, these are considered by some to be a quintessential and timeless Ashkenazi Jewish food, but they only reached their current form in the past two centuries, after the potato had become common across Eastern Europe. Secondly, potato pancakes are pretty common across Europe, be they Lithuanian blynai or Swiss rösti or Slovak haruľa. If anything, latkes are yet another reminder that Jewish food has never been isolated from its neighbors – nor is an “authentic” Jewish recipe Jewish alone. Finally, a concentration on authenticity just takes out all of the delicious ways latkes have evolved in diaspora, from the addition of grated parsnips in England to the Jewish-Japanese fusion latkes of 21st-century Brooklyn. If we spend too much time worrying about the authentic, we forget that food can have a delicious life of its own. Such is the case of the latke – though I admit, I am most fond of very ordinary, plain latkes.
Latkes come in different shapes and sizes within the Jewish world. Some think that latke tastes in prewar Europe followed the “gefilte fish line.” Just as in the case of ground fish balls, Lithuanian Jews preferred a savory latke, while the Polish preferred a sweeter latke. Toppings differ – though applesauce is considered “classic,” many prefer to augment our latkes with sour cream. Or – as I prefer – both. Some latkes are tiny and finger-sized, others make enormous latkes that are a meal alone. In America, latkes are made and served in huge quantities in both ordinary and sweet potato varieties. And of course, in Israel, latkes are almost invisible – it is the industrially-produced doughnut that is king of Hanukkah there, after the efforts of Israeli trade unions.
I personally find that the best way to make latkes is rather haphazard – as befitting such a simple food. I do not measure out my grated potatoes or oil, nor do I seek a specific weight. Rather, it is simply knowing by touch, feel, and sight when the latke batter is the right consistency, when it is crisp enough in the pan, when I need a thicker batter or to add another egg. Latkes can be surprisingly tricky: grated potatoes are a mischievous and quickly-shifting ingredient, and flipping requires a technical skill greater than that of ordinary fritters or pancakes. One can also make last-minute additions: some black pepper, a few potato skins for color, or – my favorite – a grated apple.
Thus, for those of you who are not as familiar with the kitchen, latkes can be challenging. The temptation for a beginning cook to follow a recipe exactly will not produce the latkes of your dreams, and this deceptively simple treat gets better with a lot of trial and error. A lot. That said, fried potatoes are delicious in many forms, and you can totally eat “ugly” or disintegrated latkes out of a bowl with applesauce and sour cream…not that I have ever done that. Seriously, though, it’s worth the work and experimentation. In addition, the skills you gain making latkes apply to a lot of recipes, and a lot of Jewish recipes.
I have included here a recipe for homemade applesauce, should you decide to make it. I have not been able to find a good source for the Jewish history of applesauce, but dishes with cooked apple have a long and illustrious history across the Jewish world. It is likely that applesauce emerged alongside kompot,a traditional and delicious stew of fruit. The normal American apple-cinnamon pairing is delicious, but I find the color and flavor are enhanced with a hefty dose of turmeric, my very favorite spice.
These recipes are approximately written but very flexible. If you want to add or take away things, do so – and if they’re really good, let me know what you did. Enjoy! And, of course, Khag Urim Sameakh to you and yours!
Makes about 16 latkes (Measurements are extremely approximate)
4 large potatoes, peeled and grated (see step 1)
1/3-1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 medium apple, peeled and grated (see step 1)
½ cup flour
Oil for frying
Grate the potatoes and the apple separately. I am including this as a step since this takes time. I grate by hand because I find grating therapeutic, but feel free to use a food mill or a food processor. It does save a lot of energy and time. Keep the grated potatoes in a bowl of water to prevent discoloration, unless gray latkes are your thing.
When you’re done grating, drain the water from the potatoes, and squeeze them a little to get some extra water out.
Add the eggs, oil, salt, black pepper, and grated apple, and mix thoroughly until blended.
Add the flour and mix again until blended. You should have pieces of potato and apple coated in a thick batter. If your batter is too thin, add a few tablespoons of flour. If it is too thick, add another egg.
Let the batter sit covered for ten minutes, ideally in the refrigerator.
Heat your pan – ideally, a wide skillet. Then add a layer of oil – about ¼ of an inch. Also, make sure that your frying area is well ventilated.
Add heaping tablespoons of the potato mixture into the pan and fry until the bottom is brown. Flip, then continue frying until the other side is brown. Remove and place on a pan lined with something to absorb the oil, like paper towels.
Keep frying until you are finished with the mixture. Remember to replenish the pan with oil when it is low!
Serve the latkes with sour cream, or applesauce. If you choose to go the homemade route with the applesauce, my recipe is below.
Based on a recipe by Karen Waltuck
Makes four to six cups applesauce
5 apples, cored and chopped roughly
½ cup sugar
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp ground turmeric
1 ½ tsp dried rosemary (yes you’re reading this correctly)
1 tsp ground pepper
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp salt
Chopping and coring the apples make up much of the legwork of this recipe. Allot time for this.
Place the apples, sugar, and spices into a pasta or stock pot and mix thoroughly. Add water so that the apples are floating above or are underneath about ¾ of an inch of water. If they are floating, don’t worry.
Bring to a boil. Then simmer, stirring occasionally, for 1 to 1½ hours, or until the apples are very soft and the water has cooked down about 1 inch.
Once the apples are soft, take the pot over another heat. Set up either a food mill or colander and spoon over a second pot, container, or bowl.
Ladle the mixture into the food mill or colander gradually and push through. With a food mill, you can just crank. With a colander, you just spin the spoon around and the apples and sauce go through mashed, leaving the peels behind. Do this for all the sauce; you should have peels in the work colander and sauce in the bowl at the end. Discard the peels.
Stir the sauce to evenly distribute the apple mash. Taste it and add a bit of lemon if you find it too sweet. If your sauce is a bit watery, don’t worry – pour off the most liquid bits and drink it! (It’s really good as an addition to soup stock as well.)