Chanukah has always been celebrated with gusto in my family. Even back in the day, when my brother and I fought over who would light the candles on each of the eight nights, food always took center stage. We nibbled on homemade dreidel cookies with sugar sprinkles, devoured bags of chocolate Chanukah gelt and ate crispy, golden potato latkes to our hearts' content.
Soon after graduating from college, my brother made aliyah, fulfilling his dream of living in Israel and sending our ordered, holiday ritual into a tailspin.
After several years, with my brother married and starting a family, my parents began to spend Chanukah in Israel. This left their unmarried firstborn -- me -- to fend for herself in Los Angeles.
Jewish parents are prime targets for a bit of holiday guilt, and mine are no exception.
"That's okay," I'd say. "While you're squirting jelly into your sufganiyot [Israeli jelly doughnuts], I'll be lighting my menorah -- alone. But, go -- have a good time. Don't mind me. I'll be fine."
Jewish guilt begat a new Chanukah tradition: Latkepalooza.
Latkepalooza usually falls on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. Schedules are cleared, supplies are purchased and the kitchen is readied. Grubby clothes are donned and heads are covered in kerchiefs. The guest list is limited -- my mother, my father and me.
Two huge, restaurant-supply pans are pulled out of storage, filled with oil and set on the Viking range to heat up to just the right temperature. Slotted spoons are poised to dip into the first batch of latke mixture. Spatulas are at the ready for latke flipping. A Chinese, wire-mesh scoop is propped and ready to remove stray potato fritters from the hot oil. Paper towel-lined baking sheets await the finished product. Festive, latke-making music is cued up. Excitement is in the air as the oil heats up. It's time.
Let Latkepalooza begin!
Each person mans his or her station. My mother is in charge of potato shredding and mixing up the batches: one batch at a time to ensure maximum freshness. She also zealously maintains kitchen cleanliness, keeping everyone on their toes. My father takes his place at the stove. I run interference, while at the same time manning frying pan No. 2. Dad is on the left and I am on the right. Latkepalooza roles are as irrevocable as my father's place at the dinner table.
The first batch is a bust, just like when you make regular pancakes. The oil is too hot, or it's not hot enough. We're just warming up. We do some quality control, otherwise known as taste testing, and then my father and I yell over the whir of exhaust fans and sizzling oil, to my mother at the mixing station.
"Throw an extra handful of matzah meal into the next batch," I say.
"Needs more onion," says my father.
Batch after batch we fry, until several hours later we emerge from the kitchen, hot, reeking of oil and sated from all of the taste testing. We have gone through 20 pounds of potatoes, 5 pounds of onions, 2 dozen eggs, 1 1/4 gallons of oil and one box of matzah meal. No potato has been left ungrated.
Part of our secret latke-making technique involves flash-freezing the cooked latkes. The latkes can then be heated up in a hot oven (no microwaves, please) to be enjoyed throughout Chanukah. This may sound like blasphemy to those families who believe that half the fun is standing over a splattering pan of oil and producing platter after platter of greasy latkes for the waiting hordes. Fun for the latke eaters perhaps, but not for the cook!
Latkes crisping in the oven provide the same mouth-watering aroma as those coming hot out of the frying pan, with the bonus being that you actually get to enjoy the festivities. Admit it, latke fryers, when was the last time you got to sit on the floor and enjoy a spirited game of dreidel? Nun?
Our latke production fuels several parties. My parents host a formal dinner party for their closest friends. We have a casual, pre-Israel-departure, pre-Chanukah party with all the cousins. I host my own Chanukah party, every year inviting a growing number of latke aficionados who make a major dent in the Latkepalooza output. With the latkes already made, my biggest concern is peeling gold foil off of Chanukah gelt and visiting with my friends. My celebration is held in my parents' house, while they are away in Israel. Everyone who has their own menorah brings one, so there is no arguing over who gets to light the candles.
The best part is that my parents get to head off to Tel Aviv, guilt free, knowing that a part of them will be here with me in Los Angeles while I enjoy a Chanukah tradition of my own.
2 1/2 pounds of baking potatoes, cleaned but not peeled.
1-2 cups finely chopped onion
1 tablet vitamin C, crushed and mixed with 3 tablespoons of water
3-4 tablespoons matzah meal or flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 large eggs, beaten
Vegetable oil, for frying
In a large skillet, heat 1/2 inch oil over medium-high heat.
Grate the potatoes either by hand or using a food processor. Grate only enough potatoes for one batch. If using a food processor, shred the potatoes using the grating disk. Remove grated potatoes from processor bowl and replace the grating disk with a chopping blade. Return 1/2 batch of shredded potatoes to the processor, pulsing quickly 4-5 times to chop up the shreds slightly. Repeat with other half.
Put the grated potatoes in a large mixing bowl and quickly toss with the vitamin C water. The ascorbic acid in the vitamin C will help prevent the potatoes from blackening.
Add the chopped onion, matzah meal or flour, baking powder, salt and beaten eggs, then stir to incorporate all ingredients.
Using a large spoon, gather up 2 heaping tablespoons of mixture, compressing and pushing out most of the liquid. Slide off spoon into the oil, flattening the top of each pancake with the back of the spoon. If the latke falls apart, add another egg to the mixture.
Fry until golden on each side and drain in a single layer on baking sheets lined with paper towels.
Keep warm in a 250 F oven until ready to serve or, when latkes are cool, freeze in a single layer on baking sheets. After the latkes are frozen, you may stack them in a container or put them in freezer bags.
When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 450 F. Place frozen latkes in a single layer on baking sheets. Heat in the oven for 10-15 minutes, or until latkes are sizzling and lightly browned.
Place latkes on serving platter and enjoy the party!
Yield: 25-30 latkes.
Latkepalooza Shopping List
20 pounds of potatoes
5-7 pounds of onion
10 tablets vitamin C, dissolved in 1 1/2 cups water
1 box matzah meal, or flour
2 dozen eggs
1 1/4 gallons vegetable oil
Enlist a helper or two.
Don't attempt to make this many latkes at once unless you have a food-processor. Prepare all of your ingredients, except the potatoes, before starting. Chop onions -- start with 5 pounds and chop more if needed, later. Beat all of the eggs -- use a one-cup measuring cup, scooping up one scant cup of beaten eggs for each batch. Pour the matzah meal or flour into a bowl for easy scooping. Do the same with the baking powder and salt.
Don't be afraid to make adjustments as needed. You might like less onion.
Make only one batch at a time, discarding the starchy water left in the bowl after each batch.
Yield: Eight batches, 200-240 latkes.
i>Andrea Gappell works as a food-stylist in Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.