Hanukkah Comes Early This Year, And the Potato Latkes Are Ready
Judy Bart Kancigor
Hanukkah comes early this year. You know that old joke? Jewish holidays are either early or late – they never come on time!
When my boys were young, I used to hate it when Hanukkah came early. By the time Christmas rolled around, all their toys were already broken. Oh, the joys of the Hebrew lunar calendar. Only once, to my memory, did Hanukkah fall after Christmas. That year I saved all my Hanukkah shopping for the day after Christmas sales. (Talk about a leap of faith!)
As we light the candles this year, I can’t help but remember the Hanukkahs of my youth. My mother’s family was very close, and we cousins (13 of us) were raised together practically as siblings. Remember the movie Avalon? That was our childhood (without the fire, of course!) There were so many of us Papa Harry even put a board in the children's table.
The highlight, of course, was our Hanukkah 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 our bounty. (No one ever thought of drawing names for a gift exchange back then!)
When we moved to California from New York, our boys were six and four. Away from our roots, our friends became our extended family, and our neighbors only too eager to share our traditions. On the first night of Hanukkah I would make my signature latkes, those crispy, irresistible potato pancakes, and set them on doily-lined Hanukkah paper plates for my boys to distribute up and down the block.
I have noticed through the years, however, that a kind of snobbery has developed among latke aficionados, who view with disdain from their lofty perch those who use a blender to process the potatoes. Their mantra? Shredded is better. “Oh, no,” they tsk-tsk when they see my recipe, just a touch of feigned sympathy in their eyes. “I prefer to grate. 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 babies. My family hovers over the pan to fight over the thinnest ones that are so crunchy and full of holes you can practically see through them, so turn down your decibel meter.
Now for the real secret of my very crispy latkes. Heat the oil (I use canola.) until very hot, but not smoking. Scoop up some batter with a large spoon, hold the spoon about eight inches above the pan and spill all at once. SPLAT! Remove your hand quickly so you don’t burn yourself. (It’s all in the wrist.) The pancake will splatter, forming holes, the better to hold the sour cream or applesauce. Keeping the temperature of the oil constant is key, so don’t crowd the pan. Allow the temperature to go down and you risk soggy latkes.
Here’s a tip that will really cut down your workload. You can actually prepare the batter up to a day ahead! I learned this years ago from my friend, Elaine Asa. Prepare the batter without adding the flour, and pour the mixture into a tight-fitting glass jar. Tap the jar on the counter to release any air bubbles, cover the batter well with a thick layer of flour, and refrigerate up to 24 hours. (Do not use plastic ware.) When ready to cook, remove the flour layer with the black ring that has formed beneath it. Then add the flour, stir and fry.
I found a really easy latke recipe in "Can't Believe it's Kosher," a community cookbook put out by the Congregation Beth Israel Sisterhood in Milwaukee, edited by Beverly Feiges. This one calls for shredded hash brown potatoes. What could be simpler?
No matter how you make your latkes, Feiges recommends draining them well on paper towels. To get them really crisp, drain them flat first, and then stand them up on their edges at an angle, leaning against a dish. And you can make them ahead. Refrigerate them and when you are ready to serve, just heat them on a metal cookie sheet in a preheated 350-degree oven just until they’re crisp.
Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family” (Workman) and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.
JUDY’S POTATO LATKES
From “Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family” (Workman) by Judy Bart Kancigor
2 pounds russet 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
1/4 to 1/2 cup all-purpose flour or matzoh meal
Peanut or canola oil, for frying
Sour cream and/or applesauce, for serving
1. Peel the potatoes and cut them into 1-inch cubes. Submerge them in a bowl of water while you’re preparing the remaining ingredients, to keep them white and release some of the starch.
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 sour cream and/or applesauce.
Makes about 3 dozen latkes
SHORT-CUT POTATO LATKES
from "Can't Believe it's Kosher," Congregation Beth Israel Sisterhood, Milwaukee
2 medium onions, chopped fine
1 (16-ounce) package fresh shredded hash brown potatoes
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1-2 teaspoons salt or to taste
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
1/4 cup flour or matzo meal
Oil for frying
1. Combine onions and shredded potatoes; add eggs, salt, pepper, sugar and flour. Mix well.
2. Heat oil in nonstick skillet. Scoop about 1/4 cup of potato mixture for each pancake into skillet. Fry on 1 side until edges begin to brown. Turn and fry on other side until done. Remove to glass dish lined with paper towel to drain off excess oil. Continue adding oil to skillet as needed.
3. Latkes may be refrigerated until ready to serve. Remove from refrigerator and heat in a 350° oven for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
Yield: 6 servings.