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The Fewdsletter: Hanukkah Latkes
A holiday recipe worthy of your family cookbook
I know it’s a trope of food-blogging that every recipe post starts with a personal story nobody cares about. I’m really sorry to lean into that cliché, but in order to explain how good these latkes are, I have to give you some family history.
My great-grandmother Dorothy was the matriarch of our family. She lived to be 98 and was sharp, fit, and independent to the end. Among her many other qualities, she was an incredible cook who nourished several generations with her blend of traditional Eastern European cuisine and Depression-era resourcefulness. Longtime readers will recall my famous love for macaroni and cheese; Grandma Dorothy’s was my favorite. She relished her role as the keeper of the family recipes and refused to divulge her methods until her final years. And even once she finally agreed to share her secrets, she would conveniently leave out key steps or offer impossibly vague measurements like “a glass of milk,” ensuring there was no real alternative to going to her house for dinner.
Shortly before Grandma Dorothy died, my great-aunt Lois took on the Herculean project of compiling a family cookbook. Auntie Lois inherited Grandma Dorothy’s love of cooking, and her culinary credibility goes beyond family lore — she helped celebrity chef Michael Ruhlman write an honest-to-god published cookbook. With or without her mother’s help, Lois transcribed, reverse-engineered, and invented her own takes on the family’s favorite dishes and the Ashkenazi classics. There are many wonderful cooks in our family, but as far as I’m concerned, she is the arbiter of the Jewish gastronomic canon.
With that context in mind, you will understand the significance of the following brag: A couple years ago, Auntie Lois called me to ask for my latke recipe.
Latkes are primarily associated with Hanukkah — which starts this weekend — but you can make them for a festive feast any time of year. And once you learn this recipe, you’ll be looking for excuses to use it. Over the years, I’ve made these for Passover, New Year’s, and just for fun. I've even brought this quintessential Jewish dish to my in-laws’ for Easter brunch.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of potato latkes: Those made from a liquified batter, and those with solid shreds of potato. For most of my life, I preferred the former. They’re easier to shape, they get a more-uniform crust on the outside, and you get a wonderful little bite of medium-rare potatoey mush on the inside. But I switched sides over my years of honing this recipe. There’s something satisfying about actually seeing and tasting real pieces of potato and onion. Using grated potato also yields more nooks and crannies on the surface for Maillard-y browning, and depending on how well-done you like them you can still achieve the textural contrast of crispy outsides and soft innards.
Grandma Dorothy always peeled and grated her potatoes by hand; the family joke was that her secret ingredient was knuckle blood. I take the easy way out and buy prepackaged shredded hash browns. For maximum convenience I prefer refrigerated potatoes to frozen, but frozen are fine too, just thaw them before you start cooking. Any brand will do as long as they’re not pre-seasoned or par-cooked. Grandma Dorothy might be rolling in her grave at the mere suggestion of this shortcut, but my workaround has not just Auntie Lois’ blessing but her encouragement. When I called to ask if I could write about her, she effused that sharing my method was a mitzvah (which roughly translates to “a good deed”) — “and you can quote me on that!”
In true Grandma Dorothy style, most of the other ingredients are flexible. I like a coarse chop on my onions to mimic the shape of the potatoes, but they’ll turn out just fine if you dice them instead. You can substitute breadcrumbs for the flour or use matzoh meal to make latkes that are kosher for Passover. I can’t imagine turning up your nose at garlic and black pepper, but you can tinker with the spice blend to suit your taste. White pepper isn’t essential if you can’t find it (some supermarkets around here carry it), but you’ll like the little hint of smoke that lingers on your tongue to balance out the grease. We always use peanut oil because of its high smoke point, but any neutral oil will do depending on how sensitive your smoke detectors are.
The one change I would urge you not to make is significantly reducing the salt. Yes, three tablespoons is a lot, even coming from someone with a salt tooth. Yet potatoes are famous for sucking out saltiness, so you need more than you think — especially if you’re eating them dipped in applesauce or shmeared with sour cream. If you must scale back on the sodium, don’t go below two tablespoons. It’s not like the salt is what’s keeping this from being a health food! In my considered opinion, proper salting is what makes latkes taste like latkes and not just fried starch. Just make sure you mix it well so you don’t bite into a salt mine.
The actual cooking process is easy and even soothing once you get a feel for it (there are few sounds sweeter than sizzling latkes) but be careful around the splattering oil. I use an electric fryer, and if you have one (or if you’ve been looking for an excuse to get one) I highly recommend using it, but there’s no reason you couldn’t make these on a stovetop. You may be surprised by how much time it takes. Depending on how big your cooking vessel is (I can comfortably fit six in my fryer), budget around three minutes of total prep time per latke.
This recipe scales well either up or down. I usually make enough to have leftovers, which can be faithfully resurrected in the oven or an air-fryer. That said, latkes are best served the very instant they’re cool enough to eat. They go with anything but are traditionally topped with either sour cream or applesauce, and are often served alongside a sweet-savory protein (like brisket) and hearty vegetables.
Oh, and the smell of the fryer will cling for days to anything in close proximity to it, so plan your cooking attire accordingly. I leave it to you to decide whether this is a problem or a bonus.
These potato pancakes pair perfectly with lighting candles and playing dreidel, and add festive cheer to your table at any time of year. Makes about 30 medium-sized latkes, enough to serve 6-8 as a hearty side dish.
2.5 pounds shredded potatoes (thawed, if starting from frozen)
4 yellow onions, coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon white pepper
A few good grinds of black pepper
Up to 8 eggs
Up to 1/2 cup flour
Peanut oil for frying
Applesauce and sour cream for serving
Combine first six ingredients (potatoes through black pepper) in a large bowl. Add four eggs and 1/4 cup of flour. Mix with your hands until the egg, flour, and seasonings are evenly distributed throughout the potatoes and onions.
If necessary, mix in more eggs, one at a time, until there is enough moisture to coat every shred of potato and onion; and extra flour, in small increments, until the liquid is thick enough to lightly adhere to the strands. (You may need to alternate adding each.) The chunks in the batter should be loosely bound and soggy, as if you strained a bowl of cereal after a minute or two in milk.
Fill an electric fryer or heavy-bottomed skillet with enough oil to generously coat the whole bottom. Heat the oil to about 375°F, or until a drop of water pops (not just sizzles) in the fat.
Using a big spoon, carefully drop batter into the pan one scoop at a time. Leave at least an inch of space between each one. Gently flatten latkes as they start to fry.
Let latkes fry for 4-5 minutes or until golden brown on the bottom. Flip and gently flatten again, then cook for 3-4 minutes or until they reach desired doneness.
Repeat until all batter is used. Replenish oil after every few batches or when the fryer starts to look cloudy, making sure to bring it back to temperature before you add more batter.
Place finished latkes on a cooling rack or baking sheet for a few minutes, layering with paper towels to absorb grease if desired. Place the first batches in the oven at 200°F to keep warm while you finish cooking. Serve hot with sour cream and applesauce for dipping.
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