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.)