I write to you today from beneath a thick haze of potatoes and oil. This can mean only one thing: the holiday season is upon us. You may think that I’m coming around to this fact a little late, what with the Christmas songs that have been looping on the radio for weeks, the glowing trees, and first snows. But not until the starchy scent of latkes has seeped into every last corner of my home am I ever fully on board. And I do mean every corner. There is nothing more tenacious than the smell of fried. (Anyone who has ever fried anything knows that it’s not the potatoes or the onions or the egg, but the fried that clings and won’t let go.) For a couple of weeks every December, we wear latke-scented clothing, sit on latke-scented sofas, and sleep between latke-scented sheets. This morning, I pulled out a clean towel from the very back of the linen closet. I buried my face in it after my shower only to find that even this fresh-from-the-washer specimen had not been spared. It’s no surprise, really, given that what goes on in our kitchen is no ordinary latke fry.
On Sunday night, we will be hosting our annual Chanukah party. It’s our fifth, which means that I have now lived in this city for longer than I have lived in any one place since high school. There is no shortage of wonderful people here, and every year, we manage to meet more of them. Accordingly, our guest list has grown over time, and so too has our latke output. There was a time, circa 2005, when double batches would suffice. No longer. According to the official count late Wednesday night, we made 470 latkes this year. Four-hundred and seventy!! That’s 34 times the original recipe. We grated and mixed and fried and froze a grand total of 59 pounds of potatoes. This is a first. That I can rightfully say “we made” as opposed to “Eli made” is another first for me.
Typically, Eli takes care of the latkes, stocks the bar, and mixes a signature drink for the evening. I handle all of the other edibles, most prominently, dessert. But this year, after two nights of frying solo, Eli realized that he would have to call in reinforcement to get the job done. The 254 latkes that Eli had fried up earlier in the week were packed away in the freezer of a generous neighbor. That left over 200 latkes that we still had to produce that evening. I must admit, I was terrified. There is nothing particularly settling about the thought of two cooks, a spinning food processor blade, and two pans of hissing, bubbling oil sharing a kitchen with only 35 square feet of floor space. My grandmother used to say, “Don’t go looking for trouble.” I have a feeling that this was just the kind of thing she had in mind. Since we pretty much nailed the “in sickness and in health” part of our marriage vows this year, it was time to move on to that lesser known clause, “in peanut and in olive oil.” I would have to take my chances.
To lessen the perils, we set up an iron rule: No sudden moves. (What? A rule? I love rules! Of course I’ll help you make latkes, Eli.) We did not take so much as a single step without first asserting our intentions. “Bowl on your left!” “Right behind you!“ and, my favorite, “Latke on the move!” We called out that last one 216 times, just before we lifted each finished latke from the scalding oil, and reached across the counter to place it on the cooling tray. We worked like a well-oiled machine. (Oof. Sorry.) Elbow to elbow, we made it through to the end still wearing every last layer of our skin. It was a Chanukah miracle.
Some important latke-making tips and tricks:
These two recipes, one for traditional potato latkes, the other for sweet potato curry latkes, are tried and true. I sat down with Eli last night to make sure that I would accurately capture all of the little turns and tricks that he has picked up over the years. He wanted me to tell you that to keep your potatoes from browning once they’re peeled, you should place them in a pot of water until you are ready to grate them. He also explained how to avoid ending up with strips that are too large and flat to fry up nicely with the shreds. He suggests the following technique: Quarter each potato, lengthwise, and then cut each quarter in half lengthwise, so that you end up with eight long, finger-like pieces. This slender shape, fed vertically into the food processor, will produce the most even shreds.
For both of these recipes, we rely on my grandma Louise’s freezing and reheating technique that turns latkes into a terrific make-ahead party food. Instead of placing the finished latkes onto a paper towel to absorb excess oil, allow them to cool on a tray lined with foil. Then, freeze the latkes in gallon-sized Ziploc bags. They will keep in the freezer for up to one month. When you’re ready to serve the latkes, heat them for 15 minutes in a 400-degree oven. The excess oil will spill out of the latkes onto the pan, and they will refry a little. Then you can place them on paper towels to get rid of any excess oil before serving. It works like a charm.You and your guests will enjoy the same level of crispness as when the latkes are freshly made.
Eli’s potato latkes
This recipe is the result of Eli’s trial and error over the years. It must have started out as a printed recipe from somewhere, but by now it is long forgotten, and Eli refers instead to an oil-stained page of handwritten notes. After so much tinkering, I think it’s safe to call this recipe Eli’s own. These latkes are perfect for the discerning Chanukah celebrant who seeks a cross between the thin, lacy variety, and thicker, softer pancakes. Their crisp, golden surface gives way to a dense and oniony middle. We serve them with sour cream and cranberry applesauce.
2 lbs of potatoes (Eli prefers Yukon Gold but you can use Russet if that’s what you have around.)
1 medium yellow onion
½ c. flour
1 1/2 tsp. sea salt
2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil, for frying (not extra virgin; it will burn)
More salt and pepper, to taste, for finishing (optional)
Fit a food processor with the grating disk. Peel the potatoes, cut them into eighths as described above (see “tips and tricks”), and place the pieces into a pot filled with water to keep them from browning. Peel and cut the onion into eighths, and feed the pieces through the spinning grater.
Place a colander lined with cheesecloth into the sink, and fill with the grated onion. Pull the corners of the cheesecloth together, and twist and squeeze to get rid of excess moisture. Dump the drained onion into a large bowl, and add the eggs, flour, salt, and pepper. Vertically feed the potato pieces into the food processor, and use the cheesecloth, once again, to drain the shreds. Add the drained potato shreds to the onion and egg mixture, and stir. (Eli uses his very clean hands, but you’re welcome to use a wooden spoon, if you prefer.) As soon as the salt comes into contact with the potatoes, it will start to draw moisture from them, so the batter will become wetter over time. That’s why it’s important to squeeze as much moisture as possible from the potatoes and onions at the outset.
Pour a ¼ - ½ inch layer of olive oil into a sauté pan, and heat over a high flame until the temperature reaches 350 degrees. You can use a candy thermometer to measure. Without a thermometer, you can test to see if the oil is hot enough by sacrificing a tiny scrap of batter. If the oil furiously sizzles and bubbles upon contact with the batter, it is ready. The olive oil should never get so hot that it smokes.
Using about ¼ c. of batter per latke, squeeze the batter into balls with your hands, and drop into the oil. After about 15-20 seconds, smash the tops of the latkes with a spatula to flatten them. Depending on the temperature of your oil, cooking time will vary, but we found that 2-3 minutes on each side was perfect. Place the finished latkes on a paper towel-lined tray to cool and drain. Shower with a few extra grinds of salt and pepper, if necessary. If you wish to freeze your latkes, follow Grandma Louise’s instructions, above.
Yield: 20 small latkes
[Recipe updated 12.6.2010]
Sweet Potato Curry Latkes
Adapted from Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America
Sweet potatoes are lower in starch than Yukon Golds and Russets, so these latkes are generally less crisp than Eli’s regular potato latkes. Still, there are a couple of things that you can do to ensure that you get as much crispness as possible. To prevent unnecessary sog, add just enough milk – and no more! – to produce a moist but stiff batter. And don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Squeeze the excess liquid from each individual latke as you form it, before dropping into the oil. We’re big wimps when it comes to spicy foods, so we’ve reduced the cayenne pepper from ½ tsp. to 1/8 tsp. If you can handle the heat (I envy you!), then by all means, turn it up.
1 pound sweet potatoes
½ c. all-purpose flour
2 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. brown sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. cayenne powder
2 tsp. curry powder
1 tsp. cumin
Salt and freshly ground pepper (about two teaspoons of each)
2 large eggs, beaten
½ c. milk (approximately)
Peanut oil for frying (olive oil will also work if it’s what you have on hand)
Fit a food processor with the grating disk. Peel, cut, and soak the sweet potatoes, as described above (see “tips and tricks”). In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, brown sugar, baking powder, cayenne pepper, curry powder, cumin, salt, and pepper. Add the eggs, and just enough milk (remember, not too much) to make a stiff batter.
Vertically feed the sweet potato pieces through the grater, and add the resulting shreds to the batter. The batter should be moist, but not runny. If it’s too stiff, add more milk.
Use your hands to squeeze out the liquid from about ¼ c. of batter per latke, form the batter into a ball, and drop into the hot oil. Follow the frying, flipping, and draining procedure as explained in Eli’s potato latke recipe.
Yield: About 16 latkes.
Happy Chanukah, friends!