as the festival commemorates the miracle of the small amount of oil which burned miraculously for 8 days after the desecration of the holy temple in jerusalem and celebrates its rededication, most traditional foods are cooked in oil. that means lots of frying & deep frying. not exactly a weightwatcher's dream. regardless, it is a holiday which is joyous and very food based.
the first food i will talk [post] about is the latke, or potato pancake. as anyone who has tasted these knows, nothing could be simpler or more delicious fresh from the pan. traditionally, they are served with either apple sauce or sour cream depending on what it will be eaten with. of course, today there are all sorts of variations on the theme and latkes are no longer limited to just the potato or simply salt and pepper.
preparing these little fried potato pancakes, or levivot as they are called in hebrew, will forever be associated with grated knuckles and the smell of oil in my clothing and home for hours after the deed was done! while this does not sound too appetizing, it is, i think, part of the collective jewish consciousness/experience when it comes to this holiday and is joked about globally. how many of us have memories of that metal box grater and bandaids is just part of the holiday. today, people use a food processor to grate their potatoes for convenience and speed but as the story always goes, somehow the hand-grated ones, especially those ones made by "bubbie/savta/nona/oma" (grandmother), always taste better. fact or fiction? i don't know. what i do know is — as fast as you make them, they are always gobbled up.
what goes into a perfect latke? that is a matter of opinion. the answer really is individual and trust me on this one — EVERYONE has an opinion (or three). basically, it is a matter of ingredients, preparation of the potato itself and cooking method. not surprising, is it? that sort of covers all the bases.
first off, the camps are divided when it comes to how the main star of the show is chosen & prepared.
question number one — what kind of potato to use?
answer: that really depends on where you live and what your choices are. usually a floury potato is preferred as opposed to a waxy one. the waxy ones don't have the starch content. here, russets or idaho potatoes would be a first choice. everyone has their favourite. a baking type potato is preferable over a boiling type, it is said. i love yukon gold potatoes also for making latkes.
i suggest reading the little primer called, potato science at about.com. it's a short little article which goes over the starch issue — worth perusing.
question number two — how is the potato prepared?
answer: to begin, the potatoes are peeled and put in water to prevent discolouration. next, they are grated or puréed. this is a matter of taste and family tradition — some prefer a larger and coarser grate, others a fine grate. some people will put the potatoes in a blender and purée them to make a pulpy mixture. [i suggest making them each way on a different night or making them all three ways and doing a taste test. a fun test, i'd say.] some people will immediately put the potatoes back into clean water and then drain & strain them; some will put them directly into a strainer and rinse. the idea is to remove the excess water. it should be noted that some people do not rinse them after they are grated.
using a fine strainer is best, especially when you have puréed your mixture. if the holes are too large, you can kiss your hard work goodbye! some people will use a cheesecloth, or as i do with a thin clean teatowel, and bring up the sides and twist and squeeze out the water. any way you choose, the idea again is to remove any water left over in the grated potatoes.
there is also the issue of the potatoes turning a pink or beige colour. this is the oxidation reaction and why the potatoes are rinsed (apart from removing excess starch).
nota bene: there are two alternate methods for preparing the latke mixture [as opposed to the one(s) aforementioned] — if you are making the potato mixture in a food processor, grate the onion with the potatoes. use the fine blade to purée the onion first; i find grating it doesn't always work well with the attachment. the juices from the onion prevent the grated potato from discolouring. if you are hand grating, do the onion first and then the potato directly into the onion and mix it together. once you have done this, strain everything in a teatowel or doubled cheesecloth by tightly squeezing. you want almost no moisture to make the latkes extra crispy. no rinsing involved in this method. you also avoid losing all the starch this way which helps to keep them "glued" together better. the starch helps with the browning, i believe, as it converts to sugars during the frying/cooking process (correct me if i am wrong here). in addition, using the starch from the potatoes and not adding flour also makes for crispier latkes — something which people consider to be the ultimate in latke terms.
question number three — what goes into the mixture?
answer: potato latkes are generally flavoured with a grated onion or two, or three, depending on the number of potatoes you are using. salt and pepper are also added. some cooks add ground ginger, too.
the item which binds them is traditionally eggs. [i have made them using potato starch instead of eggs for friends who are allergic to eggs & vegan]. i have seen some people use just egg whites to avoid extra cholesterol.
flour is also often added to bind and thicken the mixture though it is not going to ruin them if it is not used. i am sure some may argue this point. having made them with and without, both ways work. matzo meal — and even breadcrumbs though not traditional — are an alternative.
some people also argue the issue of including baking powder or not. personally, i do not but if you like it that way, go ahead. i have tried it both ways and not noticed any major difference.
take note that too many eggs will make the latkes omelette-y and too much flour or matzo meal makes them doughy and pancake-like. you are aiming for crispy golden exterior with a creamy soft interior. a gluey one means something went wrong. figuring out the perfect ratios does takes practice. some people swear that it is 1 egg for every (medium/large) potato; i tend to lean towards 1 egg for every 2 medium potatoes (using a coarse grate). to add to the problem, the potatoes we use from year to year are never exactly the same. in addition, we may also sometimes add a little more of this and little less of that and mess up what we remember worked perfectly last year. if you find a recipes that works brilliantly, stick to it. but as we all know, there is that old jewish refrain, "latkes?! who needs a recipe for latkes?? a little of this, a little of that, you know ... you mix, you fry, you eat!"
question number four — how to cook them?
rule number one: open all windows, wear old clothes, and turn on the ventilation!
historically, latkes were originally cooked in shmaltz, either goose or chicken fat. i'm sure they tasted amazing and wonder how many people still cook theirs this way. today, with all kinds of oils available, we now have a wide selection from which we may choose. while peanut oil is the best in terms of smoking point, it is a source of problems (allergies) for many people. why take a chance? both canola oil and regular (pomace) olive oil i would recommend as good/healthier choices. i will add that olive oil isn't a standard way to do it but it can be used and will not impart a strong taste if a pomace type is used [see the link]. a good all-purpose vegetable oil is probably the cheapest and most common route to take and works just as well. which is the best oil out of all of them? i would venture to say that that is more a matter of personal taste. in the end, almost all oils degrade at high temperatures. so keep the heat to a medium and take the pan off the heat for a bit if it gets too hot. when at the correct temperature, the oil should shimmer and not smoke.
hanukkah, therefore is not the holiday for you if you are anti-oil. of course, people have found ways around it by using less oil in which to fry the latkes or to bake them avoiding the use of oil (or at least using very minimal amounts). i say "feh" to that idea.
if they are cooked at the right temperature, they form a seal and do not absorb tremendous amounts of oil. yes, they are oily and yes, they are fattening. so, you eat less. end of story. now is not the time to be a martyr — now pass the full fat sour cream.
as for frying pans, a well seasoned cast iron is probably a top choice. it conducts the heat extremely well which is what you want when you are frying latkes. the next best choice would be a non stick skillet but that is not relevant if you have your oil at the right temperature in a regular uncoated fry pan. the hot oil should prevent sticking when latke meets the heat!
in short, a few frying pans should be used to simultaneously cook as many as you can, as fast as possible. this avoids you standing there all day cooking batch after batch. it helps to have someone helping with the turning if you have 4 pans going at the same time.
the heat should be a medium. always do a little test one to see if the pan is hot enough. some people say to put just a little oil and add as needed, some say to fry in a (half) inch of oil or so. choose your method. either way, they absorb oil. using more oil prevents you from having to add more each time.
after one side is golden brown, carefully flip them over and brown the other side. they are then drained on paper towels and held in a warm oven or eaten directly.
if you're baking them, follow the recipe's directions. i don't bake them — ever.
nota bene: always taste one first to make sure they are to your liking and then adjust the seasonings or add an extra egg or some more flour. now is your chance before you cook them all and you decide you hate them!
question number five — how to store and reheat them?
answer:after they have drained, you can store them in a pyrex [stand them up to conserve space if you have made a gazillion] covered with tinfoil and kept at low heat in the oven. they can also be frozen for later use. i freeze them flat on cookie sheets and then store them in ziplocs [stack them]. reheat them directly on a cookiesheet in the oven at 325 F to re-crisp them. don't defrost them first but keep an eye [or a nose!] on them. most of all, savour every bite and enjoy! ['cause you know you want more and are struggling not to eat 2 dozen! ;P].
latkes can be reheated in the microwave but i suggest the oven to maintain their crispiness. that, however, is a personal decision and a matter of convenience and taste!
after much cooking and my house smelling like an oil refinery, my post for latkes, done in all three ways [blender, processor & box grater], is ready. check here, if you want to see.
here are a few links to the world of latkes. have fun. check back; i always update.
(and a few others....not just latkes!)
joan nathan & NPR no. 1 & no. 2; NPR — the kitchen window
"the ultimate latke" by joan nathan and a few other recipes; here is her recent NYT article for an interesting hanukkah Q & A, with a question by fellow blogger, allergic girl from please don't pass the nuts. nathan offers her a recipe for delicious chocolate meringue kisses
watch the minimalist, mark bittman's, video to see the preparation of his grandmother's "potato nik" — one giant sized new york latke.
a slew of latke recipes & articles from the new york times on this page
epicurious has a wealth of "everything hanukkah" including a latke how-to, ideas for vegetarian hanukkah menus, a gift guide and even napkin folding.
martha stewart's latkes
from leite's culinaria here is one from the james beard house (by a 15 yr old yet!)
indian sweet potato curry pancakes & other recipes; an interesting article about jewish indian latkes
an interesting NYT article about a hungarian hanukkah with several recipes. you need to subscribe to the site (it's free and worth it). find out what delkelekh is and how to make it. i certainly am going to!
this one is from the always trustworthy and good canadian living magazine
if you are gluten intolerant, or even not, try the glutenfree goddesses beautiful latkes & applesauce — i know i will :-P
for sephardic style cauliflower latkes, look here
zucchini latkes w/ red pepper jelly & smoked trout from food and wine
foodnetwork has a ton of hanukkah recipes, not just latkes here
the canadian jewish news has some good ones, too.
this one from about.com uses lemon juice in its preparation — news to me.
and from one of the oldest bloggers (81 she says; go millie!), check out millie's latkes
for a completely different (and very interesting) variety, check out "not your mama's latkes"
another interesting one at leites by ada shoshan (looks good!) — apple latkes!!
if you like crispy ones, perhaps this one from food & wine again is good. looks like the one from martha stewart.
take a look at fellow canadian pamela reisses latke post in her (new) blog
there is an interesting one for potato cauliflower ones here
what's up with kwaanza & latkes?? read the article and see the video here
caribbean style latkes & a few other "legendary" ones from the same site
the following baked latke recipe looked good from aura's kitchen
and if you like mini latkes, like i do, here is one
so that's it folks, try them at your discretion. these are ones that i thought looked good. i would appreciate feedback if you try any of them. i am sure other readers would, too. if you post your results, a linkback would be appreciated to show off your holiday efforts!