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For the Love of the Latke

For many, the traditional Hanukkah experience includes a greasy latke in one hand and (hopefully) a napkin in the other.

Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after it was destroyed by Antiochus IV. As Rabbi David Ingber of New York’s Kabbalistic congregation Kehilat Romemu explains, “After the Jews reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem, they went to look for oil so that they could light a candelabra to rededicate the temple. In fact, Hanukkah means ‘rededicate.’ They found one jar of oil that had not been defiled in the destruction of the temple, which contained enough oil to last for one day. It lasted for eight days.”

And so, to celebrate the Miracle of the Oil, Jews enjoy foods fried in oil, with latkes, or potato pancakes, at the top of the Ashkenazic list. As David Kraemer, professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and author of the forthcoming “Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages” (Routledge), explained in an interview with the Forward: “Latkes are the custom of Jews who came from Russia and Eastern Europe. It is a food that combines the symbolic oil with an inexpensive dish that was part of the daily sustenance; that is, potatoes and onions.”

That said, Kraemer reminds us that although eating latkes is fun, festive and customary, “unlike the Sabbath, where you are obligated to eat a certain number of meals, or on Passover, where there are food obligations, there is nothing in the essential law of Hanukkah that relates to food. There are no obligations, only customs.”

And why not participate in a custom that celebrates the frying of the food? Especially today, when, thanks to global grocery options, we have choices that go far beyond the traditional potatoes and onions.

Julie Negrin, director of culinary arts at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, grew up in a Sephardic community in Seattle. “When I think of Hanukkah, I think of bulemas,” Negrin said. (Bulemas are fried pastries, often filled with cheese or spinach.) “When I was in Israel, it was sufganiyot, which are jelly-filled doughnuts.” Negrin offers Hanukkah-specific classes at the JCC, including “Chanukah Around the World,” which features Indian sweet potato curry pancakes, and Syrian nut-stuffed pancakes in rosemary syrup.

Still, some purists prefer traditional latkes like Bubbe used to make, like the following recipe for a basic latke. More adventurous foodies can spice it up with the suggested additions and toppings. For something completely different, try the Indian sweet potato curry pancakes.

Basic Latkes

Makes 12

4 medium russet potatoes (2 pounds), scrubbed
1 small onion, peeled (optional)
2 eggs
1⁄4 cup flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for serving
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Oil, for frying
Sour cream and apple sauce for serving

  1. Grate potatoes and onion (if desired), using the medium/fine grating side of a box grater. Squeeze out excess liquid from the potato mixture with your hands or a kitchen towel. In a medium bowl, combine the potato mixture, eggs, flour, salt and pepper; stir well.

  2. Meanwhile, fill a frying pan with enough oil to come a half an inch up the sides. Heat on medium high for about five minutes, or until oil is ready for frying (about 350 degrees). Drop potato batter into hot oil, using two to three tablespoonfuls per serving, and gently press to flatten. Continue until skillet is full, leaving enough room between each piece so that they do not touch. Cook, turning once with a slotted spoon or spatula, until golden brown, about four minutes per side.

  3. Remove from skillet, and let drain on a paper-towel lined plate; sprinkle with salt. Repeat until all batter is used. Serve warm.

Create Your Own Signature Latkes
Add to the Batter: Grated Root Vegetables

Celery root
Sweet potato

Add to the Batter: Herbs
Roughly chopped parsley

Add to the Batter: Who Would Have Thought?
Grated zucchini (with the skin on)
Dried porcini mushrooms, rehydrated

Reconsider the Potato Try Yukon golds or red-jacket potatoes to make a crisper, sweeter latke. More binding power (flour, breadcrumbs) will be needed.

While Frying Cook using a neutral oil, like peanut, safflower or grapeseed. Award-winning latke cooks swear by frying in schmaltz (rendered chicken fat).

Toppings: From Traditional to Trendy
Sour cream and chopped chives
Smoked salmon and wasabi
Watercress, caviar and crème fraîche

Indian Sweet Potato Curry Pancakes
Serves four to six
(Makes 20 3-inch pancakes)

1 large sweet potato, peeled and coarsely grated
1⁄2 cup white flour
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powderdash cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1⁄4 teaspoon saltfreshly ground pepper
3 large eggs, beaten
1⁄4 cup whole milk
1⁄4 to 1⁄2 cup vegetable or canola oil (for frying)

For serving:
Apple sauce
2 large mangoes, cubed
Sour cream

  1. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, sugars, baking powder, cayenne pepper, curry powder, cumin, salt and black pepper.

  2. Add the eggs* and milk to the dry ingredients to make a stiff batter. Add the potatoes, and mix (the batter should be moist but not runny; if too stiff, add a little more milk).

  3. Heat two to three tablespoons of oil in a large frying pan for about a minute to a minute and a half. Drop two heaping tablespoons of the potato batter into the hot pan, and flatten down with the back of a spatula. Continue in this manner so that you are frying three to four pancakes at a time. Continue to cook over medium-high heat for several minutes until all the pancakes are golden on each side. Place fried pancake onto a plate covered with a paper towel to absorb excess oil. Serve hot, sprinkled with a dash of cinnamon and cubed mango chunks or with a dollop of apple sauce and/or sour cream.

Note: If you want to stretch the batter a bit and make more pancakes with less potato, add another egg or two.

The recipe for Indian sweet potato curry pancakes was contributed by Jennifer Abadi, author of “A Fistful of Lentils: Syrian-Jewish Recipes From Grandma Fritzie’s Kitchen” (Harvard Common Press, 2002).

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