Jewish Journal

The secret of potato latkes

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by Judy Bart Kancigor

Posted on Nov. 29, 2007 at 7:00 pm

Excerpted from "Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family" (Workman, 2007).

Chanukah(Hebrew for "dedication") is all about the oil. In 165 B.C.E., against great odds, Judah Maccabee and his tiny band of soldiers defeated Antiochus and the Syrian-Greek army. Wishing to rededicate the Temple, they found only enough oil to last one day. As every Jewish school child knows, that tiny flask of oil miraculously lasted eight days. But who knew it would set off a frying frenzy that would last for centuries!

Jews of Eastern European descent (Ashkenazim) commemorate the holiday with latkes. But who says potato pancakes are the only fritters fit to fry? Israelis celebrate Chanukah with sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), and every Jewish community the world over sets oil to bubbling to fry a traditional pastry.

Another lesser-known Chanukah tradition involves the story from the apocrypha of Judith, a beautiful Jewish widow, who was asked to dine with the enemy general Holofernes. She plied him with cheese to make him thirsty for wine, and when he fell into a drunken stupor, she beheaded him with his own sword. Because her bravery is said to have inspired the Maccabees, some communities remember Judith by eating cheese during this holiday.

Lighting the candles, I am transported to the Chanukahs of my youth. For the Rabinowitz cousins, raised together practically as siblings, our childhood was the New York version of the movie, "Avalon" (without the fire, thankfully). Our parents were so close, we were always together: cousins Carole and Phyllis, Joyce and Marvin, Bonnie and Jackie, my brother, Gary and I, and of course cousin Marilyn, who luxuriated for nine years as the only grandchild before the rest of us appeared. Ellen and Leslie, Ronald and Linda, our Atlanta cousins, made occasional appearances to round out the festivities. Uncle Al, in his gold slippers and yachting cap, would regale us wide-eyed kids about his submarine, and the identical twins, Uncle Morris from Atlanta and Uncle Lou from New York, would exchange their jackets, scaring their daughters, who suddenly saw two daddies. There were so many of us that Papa Harry even put a board in the children's table. The highlight, of course, was our Chanukah party. The pile of latkes! The mountain of presents! The noise! The excitement! The squabbles! Then when we cousins started producing the great-grandchildren, Aunt Sally's basement bulged with four generations of Rabinowitzes, each bringing gifts for all the others.

I have noticed through the years that there is a tendency among latke illuminati to view with disdain those who blend. "Oh, no," they tsk-tsk when they see my recipe, just a touch of feigned sympathy in their eyes. "I use a food processor. I like texture." Texture? You want texture? I'll give you texture. Use my splat! method and you'll get all the texture you want with these crunchy babies.

They're all crispy outsides, with practically no insides. My family hovers over the pan to fight over the thinnest ones, which are so full of holes you can practically see through them. Cathy Thomas, food editor of The Orange County Register, called them "crunchy wonders" and "crispy-brown snowflakes" ... but I don't like to brag.

Judy Bart Kancigor's Crispy, Crunchy Latkes

2 pounds baking potatoes
2 large eggs
1/2 medium-size onion, coarsely chopped
1/2 medium-size firm apple, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher (coarse) salt, or to taste
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon baking powder (see Notes)
1/4 to 1/2 cup all-purpose flour or matzah meal
Peanut or canola oil, for frying
Applesauce and/or sour cream, for serving

1. Peel the potatoes and cut them into 1-inch cubes. To keep them white and release some of the starch, submerge them in a bowl of water while you're preparing the remaining ingredients.

2. Place the eggs in a blender. Add the onion, apple, salt, white pepper and baking powder. Drain the potatoes and squeeze them dry in paper towels. Add enough of the potatoes to fill the blender (all 2 pounds may not fit). Turn on the blender, and pushing down on the sides with a rubber spatula (careful you don't blend the spatula -- there is no rubber in this recipe), blend until the potatoes just move around. Add the remaining potatoes as you're blending, but do not overprocess or make it too smooth. The texture should resemble applesauce. (This takes about 6 seconds in my Osterizer.)

3. Transfer the batter to a large bowl and add the flour. The batter should be flowing, but not too thin.

4. Now for the real secret of my very crisp latkes: Pour enough oil into a large skillet to coat the bottom. Heat the oil over medium-high heat until it is quite hot but not smoking. Use a serving spoon to scoop up the batter (about 2 tablespoons per scoop), hold the spoon about 8 inches above the pan, and spill it all at once. Splat! Remove your hand quickly so you don't burn yourself.

(Like tennis, it's all in the wrist.) The batter will splatter, forming holes ... the better to hold the sour cream or applesauce. Repeat with as many as will fit in the skillet without crowding. Cook until browned, about 1 minute. Then flip them over and cook the other side for 1 minute.

5. Drain the latkes well on paper towels, and keep them warm while you cook the remainder, adding more oil as needed.

6. Serve immediately, with applesauce and/or sour cream.

Notes: If you want to make the batter ahead, to cook later or the next day, prepare it through Step 2 (do not add the flour), and pour the mixture into a tight-fitting glass jar (do not use plastic ware). Tap the jar on the counter to release any air bubbles, cover the batter well with a thick layer of flour, and refrigerate for up to 24 hours. When you are ready to use it, remove and discard the flour with the black layer that has formed beneath it. Transfer the batter to a large bowl, stir in the flour, and proceed with Step 4 using fresh flour.

Makes about 3 dozen latkes.

Low-Fat Version: As we all know, we eat latkes at Chanukah to commemorate the miracle of the rededication of the Temple, when a single cruse of oil burned for eight days, so we celebrate this significant event in our history by consuming eight days' worth of oil in one sitting! Where's the miracle in that? Wouldn't it be more in the spirit of Chanukah to use a tiny drop of oil and feed crispy latkes to eight hungry people? Here's how: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Spray a baking sheet (not nonstick) generously with vegetable cooking spray.

Prepare the batter as described, and "fry" the latkes in a nonstick skillet coated with vegetable cooking spray. They will be limp as dishrags, but here's the trick: After they are "fried," dip each pancake in beaten egg white. Place the egg-white-coated latkes on the prepared baking sheet and bake until crisp on both sides, 3 to 5 minutes per side. Now, that's a miracle!

Giant Stuffed Potato Latke Galette With Wild Mushrooms
From Judy Bart Kancigor

Inspired by a stuffed potato galette I found in Roy Finamore's "One Potato, Two Potato," I devised this recipe by enclosing stir-fried wild mushrooms in a crispy potato pancake for a Chanukah latke with attitude. It is a little tricky to turn, however. That's why I suggest browning it briefly on one side and then baking it. Depending upon your oven, you may not need to brown the other side after it has baked.

Makes eight servings.

For the Mushroom Filling:
About 2 tablespoons olive oil (see Notes)
About 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
8 ounces (total) of 3 or more varieties of mushroom, such as shiitake, portobello, oyster, chanterelle, cremini, and/or porcini, cleaned and sliced (see Notes)
1/2 teaspoon kosher (coarse) salt

For the Galette:
12 ounces large red-skinned potatoes, unpeeled
1 zucchini
1/2 medium-size onion
2 to 4 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher (coarse) salt, or to taste
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Grated nutmeg to taste
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Vegetable oil, for frying

1. Prepare the filling: Heat the olive and sesame oils in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the mushrooms, season with salt, and cook until they are tender and the juices have been released, about 5 minutes. (Do not crowd, or the mushrooms will steam and not brown.) If using portobellos, cook them by themselves for about 7 minutes before adding the other mushrooms. If using oyster mushrooms, cook them by themselves for about 3 minutes. Spread the cooked mushrooms out on a platter or baking sheet, rather than piling them in a bowl -- again, so they do not steam --and set them aside.

2. Fill a medium-size saucepan with cold water, add the potatoes and bring to a boil. Boil for 5 minutes. Then drain the potatoes, place them in a bowl, cover with cold water and drain again. Cover with cold water again and allow to sit for 5 minutes. Drain the potatoes and pat them dry.

3. Using a box grater, shred the potatoes (with skins on) on the large holes. If you do not turn the potato as you are grating, you will be left with most of the peel --very convenient, because the ungrated peel will protect your knuckles. Discard the peel, but it is OK if some shreds of peel remain in the grated potatoes.

4. Rinse the zucchini well, pat it dry, and cut it crosswise into thirds. Grate the zucchini skins only (reserve the interiors for another use). Spread the shredded zucchini skin on a clean dish towel or paper towels, and let it drain for 15 minutes.

5. Using a box grater, shred the onion on the large holes until it is finely chopped but not mushy. Drain on a clean dish towel or paper towels for 15 minutes.

6. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

7. Combine the shredded potato and zucchini in a large bowl. Stir in the shredded onion along with the parsley, eggs, flour, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and baking powder.

8. Pour enough oil into a 10-inch oven-proof skillet to cover the bottom, and heat it over medium-high heat until it is very hot but not smoking. Carefully spread half of the potato mixture evenly in the skillet. Cover it evenly with the mushrooms. Cover with the remaining potato mixture. Press down with the back of a metal spatula, and fry just until a crust starts to form on the bottom, about 4 minutes.

9. Transfer the skillet to the oven and bake until the galette is set and very crisp on the bottom, about 40 minutes.

10. Remove the skillet from the oven (careful: the handle will be hot!). If the top is not brown, hold the galette in place with a spatula, and very carefully drain the excess oil into a bowl. Invert a dinner plate over the skillet and holding the two together (wear oven mitts, please), turn the galette over. Pour the drained oil back into the skillet and heat it until it is very hot but not smoking. Slide the galette back into the skillet, unbrowned side down. Fry until a crust forms, about 4 minutes.

11. Carefully drain the oil from the skillet as before, and slide the galette onto a serving plate. Slice into wedges and serve.

Notes: Different mushrooms absorb different amounts of oil, so use more or less oil as needed, maintaining a ratio of 1 part toasted sesame oil to 3 parts olive oil. Before slicing them, remove the stems from shiitake and oyster mushrooms (save them for stock).

Variation: This potato batter makes tasty individual latkes as well, even without the mushroom stuffing: Prepare the batter, following Steps 2 through 7, without heating the oven. Then heat vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until it is quite hot but not smoking. Drop the batter into the hot oil and press with the back of a spatula to flatten. Fry until crisp, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn and fry the other side, 2 to 3 minutes more. Drain on paper towels, and serve hot.'Cookin' for Love' Malaysian Latkes

I don't often adapt recipes from novels, but Sharon Boorstin's fun romp, "Cookin' for Love," sent me straight to the kitchen. Heroine Miriam's thoughts seldom stray from food, and when she awakens from a dream about Grandma's latkes to find her Malaysian cleaver-toting captor frying curried onions, it's an "aha" moment of the kitchen kind. Cashews! Ginger! This is a latke with pizzazz!

1/2 cup chopped unsalted cashews or peanuts
1/4 cup chopped mint or flat-leaf parsley, or a combination
1/4 cup finely chopped red bell pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped jalapeño pepper, seeded and deveined
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons kosher (coarse) salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon curry powder
2 large eggs, beaten
2 large baking potatoes (12 ounces each), cut into wedges
1 medium-size onion, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
Vegetable oil, for frying
Cacik (see below), adding 1 teaspoon toasted cumin seeds

1. Combine the cashews, mint, bell pepper, jalapeno, ginger, salt, curry powder, and eggs in a large bowl, and mix well. Set it aside.

2. Shred the potatoes and onion together in a food processor fitted with the shredding disk. Squeeze the potato/onion mixture between several changes of paper towels to release as much liquid as possible. Add the potato/onion mixture to the egg mixture, and combine well. Stir in the flour.

3. Pour enough oil into a large, heavy skillet to cover the bottom, and heat it over medium-high heat. When the oil is quite hot but not smoking, add a scant 1/4 cup batter per latke and flatten them with a fork. Fry only as many latkes as will fit in the skillet without crowding. Cook on one side until crisp and brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn over and cook until the other side is crisp and brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the latkes to paper towels to drain. Keep the latkes warm while frying the remainder. Serve immediately, with the Cacik.

Note: To taste the potato mixture, or any mixture containing raw eggs, microwave a tablespoon or so until cooked, 5 to 15 seconds, depending on the size and strength of your microwave; then taste.
Makes 16 latkes.

Cacik: Cucumber Dip With Yogurt Sauce
1 English (hothouse) cucumber
Kosher (coarse) salt
2 cups plain yogurt
1 to 2 teaspoons crushed garlic
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon toasted cumin seeds

1. Grate the cucumber coarsely into a colander. Sprinkle generously with salt, and allow to stand for 15 to 20 minutes. Then rinse off the salt and let drain.
2. Combine the yogurt, garlic, olive oil, cumin seeds and salt to taste in a bowl, and whisk until smooth and creamy.

3. Pat the cucumbers dry, and combine them with the yogurt sauce. Taste and adjust the salt. Cover and chill for at least 1 hour.

Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of "Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family" (Workman, $19.95) and may be found on the Web at http://www.cookingjewish.com.

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