Lights and Latkes

Today was the first day of Chanukah, the Festival of Lights and Latkes.

The story of Chanukah begins with the Maccabees, a Jewish warrior family dating from Biblical times. After fighting a long war with the Syrians, the Maccabees returned home to Jerusalem to find their Temple vandalized. They cleared the mess, rebuilt the altar and went to light the sacred Menorah—candelabra.  Consecrated pure olive oil was required for the lighting but only one day’s supply was available. Miraculously the one day supply lasted long enough—-eight days—for a new supply to arrive.

To celebrate and commemorate the miracle of the oil, Jews around the world light candles in an eight armed Menorah for eight nights—starting with one candle and adding one more each night until all eight are lit—and serve traditional foods that are fried in oil.

In the US, the Latke has come to symbolize Chanukah food more than anything else. Simply put it is a potato pancake shallow-fried in vegetable oil and served with applesauce or sour cream. It is not a complicated dish and should only be made with grated potatoes, grated onion, whole eggs, matzo meal, salt and pepper.

While the Latke is admittedly a delicious and well known version of the fried potato cake, it is not the only way to peel, grate and fry a potato.

The Swedes have given us Rarakor—a lacy version made with chives and served with ligonberry jamand the Irish enjoy Boxty-–finely grated and mashed potatoes mixed with flour.

Sephardic Jews (Jews originating from Spain) serve ejjeh batata for Chanukah: fried potato fritters served in Pita bread with tomatoes, pickled cabbage, cauliflower and cucumber. In Germany baking powder is added and they are called Kartoffelpuffer. Belarus tops all by making the potato pancake their national dish.

I wanted to try an assortment of these wonderful grated potato concoctions to celebrate my (quiet) first day of Chanukah. I’ve been pulling cookbooks from around the world for days now while Google search has been on overdrive. However, like most traditional foods, an “original” recipe was hard to find. I’ve cherry picked from several to come up with what I thought was the best version of each.

There is one thing, however, that all the old, traditional recipes have in common: you must use starchy, russet potatoes and modern gadgets do not turn out the best results. Give up the food processor, put in a little extra effort and shred your potatoes on a box grater. (Have band-aids handy…your knuckles will take a beating).

Sweden: Rarakor med Graslok (lacy potato cakes with chives)

To serve 4

  • 4 medium potatoes, peeled
  • 2 TBS minced fresh chives
  • 2 Tsp kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 TBS unsalted butter
  • 2 TB S vegetable oil

Method:

Have everything prepared and measured—mis en place—and work quickly so the potatoes do not discolor

  • Peel the potatoes and shred them by hand with a box grater into a bowl. Do not drain off any potato liquid that accumulates.
  • Stir in the chives, salt and pepper.
  • Heat the butter and oil in a shallow 10-12 inch pan over medium high heat.
  • When the foam subsides, drop in 2 TBS of mixture for each cake and flatten each with a spatula. They should be about 3” in diameter
  • Fry 3-4 at a time, 2-3 minutes a side, until golden brown and crispy.
  • Drain on paper towels and serve immediately with ligonberry jam on the side

Note: these lovely potato cakes are almost translucent when they are done.

Germany: Kartoffelpuffer mit Apfelmus (potato fritter with applesauce)

To serve 4

  • 2 LBs potatoes, peeled and soaking in ice water
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 2 tsp kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/8 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • Vegetable oil for frying

Method:

  • Pat the potatoes dry and grate them over a clean dish towel or triple thick piece of cheesecloth
  • Wrap up the grated potatoes and squeeze out as much liquid as possible into a clean bowl
  • Let the potato liquid stand for 5-10 minutes
  • Put the squeezed grated potatoes into another bowl.
  • Grate the onion over the grated potatoes
  • Add the salt, pepper, nutmeg, eggs and mix well.
  • Carefully drain off the reserved liquid from the potatoes until you come to the white potato starch that has settled on the bottom. Scrape the starch into the potato mixture and mix well.
  • Heat a large (non stick if you have it) pan over medium heat and add about ¼” vegetable oil.
  • Using a ½ cup measure, drop the potato mix into the hot oil and flatten gently with the back of a spoon.
  • Fry 4-5 minutes on each side until golden brown.
  • Drain on paper towels and serve with applesauce and a sprinkle of cinnamon

Nana’s Latkes (traditional potato pancakes)

To serve 4-6

  • 4 medium potatoes
  • 2 medium yellow onions
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 2 tsps kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 TBS matzo meal
  • Vegetable oil for frying

Method:

  • Peel the potatoes and grate them into a large bowl
  • Peel the onions and grate them into the same bowl with the potatoes (you may want to alternate grating potato and onion to keep tears at bay)
  • Mix in the matzo meal, salt and pepper
  • Swipe your index finger lightly over the mix and check the seasonings, adjust if needed
  • Add the eggs and mix well
  • Heat ¼ “ of vegetable oil in a large shallow pan over medium heat
  • Test the oil: take one piece of shredded potato and toss it into the oil. If it “sizzles” the oil is ready
  • Using a large soup spoon, ladle the potato mix into the oil and flatten each gently with the back of the spoon. Each latke should be about a 3”x2” oval and about ¼ “ thick. Fry the latkes, turning only once, until golden brown on both sides.
  • Drain on paper towels and serve with applesauce or sour cream.

Note: if you are making dozens and dozens like we do this time of the year, keep the latkes warm by placing them, after they’re well drained of oil, on a rack set over a cookie sheet in a 200° oven. They will keep for about 30 minutes.

 

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2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Kim said,

    This is a lovely post. Thank you for sharing this with the gentiles. Hugs


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