BESIDES THROWING OFF gloriously ruffled vines that grow to fabulous lengths in one’s window boxes, potatoes are also useful for potato pancakes, or latkes, the essence of the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, or Hanukah, or to get technical, חֲנֻכָּה.
In a time before food processors, Mama would grate the potatoes by hand, which always involved adding a bit of skinned knuckle and a drop or two of blood. She would also hand-grate onion into the mash so there would also be tears. This all feels very symbolic, but isn’t. It was just painful and a little gory.
The pancakes were, and are, fried in oil until golden, a cast-iron pan giving the best color. Mama would stand in the kitchen over the hot oil frying and serving batch after batch, which guests would eat before she got to the table, since she didn’t want them getting cold and latkes grow unpleasantly heavy and flaccid if left to warm in the oven.
My older sister who, distrusting the newfangled, still grates by hand, gets around this by having people stand next to her in the kitchen, eating them the instant they’re done—and then sitting down to dinner.
The master recipe, as laid down by my mother, makes enough for two or three little piggies (or the kosher equivalent, which is what?).
4 servings (you don’t want to know the calorie count)
2 large russet or Idaho potatoes, peeled
1 small onion, peeled
Scant teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
½ cup matzoh meal* (or flour)
Peanut or corn oil
Cut the potatoes and onion into large chunks** and place in the food-processor bowl fitted with the steel blade. Chop—do not grate!—until the potatoes are about the texture of oatmeal (about 10 to 15 seconds, depending on the size of your chunks). Dump in a large bowl. Add egg, salt and pepper, and matzoh meal and combine well. Do not squeeze out or drain the moisture the potatoes release (I don’t care what you’ve read).
The mixture should just hold together when stirred. If it is runny, add more matzoh meal.
Heat enough oil in a frying pan for the potatoes to float. When sizzling (but not smoking) drop serving spoonfuls of batter into the oil, flattening slightly with the back of the spoon (don’t mash them down or they’ll stick to the pan), and fry until golden brown on one side, flipping and frying the other side, about 10 minutes total. You should get eight in a 12-inch frying pan.
Remove and drain on paper towel or brown paper.
While it’s reasonable to prepare such a small batch while you’re putting dinner together, making latkes for many may mean you’ll never leave the kitchen.
My mother’s recipe is straightforwardly doubled or tripled or more, the only possible adjustment being to add a little matzoh meal or flour if the batter is too runny.
Pause for extremely brief history lesson: Chanukah is considered a miraculous holiday, the Festival of Lights. The Jews, who had just beaten back the Greeks, needed oil for the temple lights but had only enough to last a single day. Yet the oil lasted for eight, time enough to keep the candelabrum called the menorah ablaze until a new supply could be prepared.
And so oil becomes a holiday theme, herein represented by latkes. Interesting side note: Jewish holidays, with few exceptions, involve eating extraordinary quantities of particularly cholesterol-rich food, and yet we are often long-lived. Another side note is that Aunt Ruthie always had to lie down somewhere midway through holiday meals. She was also afraid of my pet mouse, Willie. But that is really neither here not there.
The miracle of cooking a party quantity of latkes is to pre-fry them.
I usually make them around noon and consider a few testers to be my lunch. Fry them until cooked through, about 8 minutes total, and light brown, drain on a wire rack, which saves paper towels and therefore trees. Do NOT refrigerate, which lends an offish taste.*** There’s nothing that will spoil during a few hours’ rest.
It’s essentially like the double-fry method you use for making French fries. Reheat your oil (or use fresh if it’s a mess) until burbling and, when you’re just about ready to serve dinner, drop in the precooked latkes and fry 15 to 20 seconds on one side and flip for another 15 or so (experiment!). They quickly crisp up and heat through and taste as good as fresh.
I’ve been known to fry 100 for my occasional annual Chanukah party and have them on the table within 10 minutes.
With numerous decades of latke experimentation under my increasingly large belt, and a recipe that has brought grown men to tears, I do not know why so many people doubt that this method works. While I might embellish and exaggerate from time to time (alas, a family shortcoming), I do not lie, if I can help it.
And so I will here repeat: The large-batch process uses the same double-fry technique that’s used for French fries. The end result should be pancakes that are brown and deliciously crisp on the outside, warm and almost creamy within—and done in time for you to sit down with your guests and eat them.
*Matzoh meal makes for a lighter latke
**Cut your potatoes into chunks just small enough to fit in the bowl without jamming the blades—quarters or sixths. Do not try to chop more than two potatoes at a time; they quickly go from oatmeal-coarse to liquefied.
***If you do have leftovers, they can be frozen or refrigerated and are not terrible reheated, as long as you bring them to room temperature before briefly refrying, not baking them. No matter how hot your oven, an oven-heated latke will never taste as fresh or crisp as on that’s been refried.
LittleBird Stephanie is writing about potato pancakes in her gardening column because potatoes are a plant, not that she grows them, but what the hey.