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The secret of potato latkes

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by Judy Bart Kancigor

November 29, 2007 | 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. Tracker Pixel for Entry

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