This post is kindly sponsored by Rachel Conlon, in honor of her friend Renée Gibbins’s birthday.
Happy almost Chanukah, everyone! Chanukah is always a little bit up in the air for my family because, like many Jews, we have our larger celebration of it “whenever seems most convenient for everyone.” We light the candles all eight nights, but otherwise our actual lives are often unchanged for the span of the actual holiday.
I love holidays, and I love winter holidays especially. One of my favorite Chanukah traditions is frying latkes (potato pancakes) with my mom. Whether we have family over or go somewhere for the holiday, we always set up a little frying station at the stove and argue for fifteen to twenty minutes about whether the latkes are perfectly shaped. Latkes are comfort food, and they always make me think of the times when my mom would bring latkes into my elementary school classes — and, more recently, the rare occasions on which my mom and I actually want to cook the same thing at the same time. When I asked her if she would make the latkes with me for this article, she said, “Yes — but we have to make them perfectly!” I agreed to her terms, and here we are.
One of the lasting controversies of my life, and one of the few fights I’ve ever consistently participated in rather than avoiding, is whether one should use pulverized or shredded potatoes in latkes. My mother makes them using pulverized potatoes, so I always thought pulverized were the way to go. Only in college did I discover that most people shred their potatoes, or use a shredding attachment in a food processor. I fought with my entire college Hillel about this every single year, alienating many — senior year of college, in fact, I got so worked up I skipped the official latke celebration and instead made latkes for some friends who lived off-campus, carting my blender over in my backpack.
In my old age, though, I’ve mellowed out: I realize that taste is subjective. I understand why people have different latke preferences! For the most part, people like what they grew up with — latkes are, for many Jewish people, inherently linked to childhood holiday memories and family.
4-5 Idaho potatoes
¼ Spanish onion
½ cup matzo meal (or ¼ cup flour)
1 teaspoon salt
Half a lemon, squeezed
Non-reactive bowl (glass, china, etc) so the potatoes don’t turn black
fine mesh sieve (or paper towels)
Blender or food processor
Yield: one batch, or about 20 medium-sized latkes.
(If you really want to make latkes with shredded potatoes, I’m sure this recipe would still work fine, but I have not tried it out myself.)
Directions: Set up your frying station. You have to work fast with latkes, because as soon as you peel your potatoes they will begin to turn pink, then black. The potatoes (and eventual latkes) are still edible and will taste fine, but the discoloration really bothers my mother and she’s passed on her fear to me.
Get out the potatoes, onion, lemon, eggs, and matzo meal or flour. To set up a frying station the way my mom and I usually do, put oil in a frying pan. Put a plate or platter next to the frying pan with paper towels on it and more paper towels right next to it; place these far enough away that there’s no danger of anything catching on fire.
Peel your potatoes, or better yet make your younger brother peel potatoes. If you have an older brother and your older brother is exactly like mine, he will be sitting nearby using his computer and asking you how far you are in Jessica Jones.
Cut the potatoes into largish chunks, about 1 to 2 inches. Peel your onion. (I usually use about a quarter of an onion, but you can go to a half or even a whole; it just depends on how much onion you want. Honestly, this whole thing is hard to screw up.) Cut the onion into similar-sized pieces as the potatoes. Put potato and onion in food processor or blender and pulverize until you have a homogenous white mixture and no solid pieces left.
Pour potato/onion mixture into a fine mesh sieve and press on it with a spatula or stack of paper towels. Liquid should pour out the bottom. Keep moving around and pressing on the mixture until liquid stops consistently draining. Pour into nonreactive bowl.
Crack eggs, mix into bowl. Mix in Matzo Meal. Pour in salt and squeeze in your half-lemon.
Turn your stove on high. Let the oil heat up — this is different pan by pan and stove by stove. I would say let the oil start shimmering. You can put a small amount of latke dough in the oil to see if oil starts bubbling around it — this will mean your oil is heated enough. At this point, I usually turn the stove down to a medium or medium-low flame.
(I use corn oil; you can also use vegetable oil or olive oil. My mom wants me to tell everyone that her college friend makes latkes fried in schmaltz — rendered chicken fat — and they’re “out of this world.”)
Form a latke by taking your desired amount out with one spoon and shaping with another spoon. They should be an oval or round shape, and I typically make them with about 3-4 tablespoons of batter. Latkes can be whatever size you want, though, and this just means the frying time will vary depending on the size. Gently slide the formed latke into the oil. Repeat this step 3-4 times depending on the size of your pan; there should always be some space between the latkes, at least an inch or so so they don’t cook together.
You will be able to see the bottom edges begin to brown, starting with the first latke you put in. Using a spatula, check the bottom of the latkes. Once the majority of the bottom is light brown (extremely defined from the original white) gently turn it over. Again, this will depend on the size of your latke and your pan.
Keep checking on the bottom of the latkes. Once the bottom is the same brown as the top, it’s done!
Gently lift latke out of pan and place on top of the paper towels. Lift all of the latkes out as they finish. If you are planning on making latkes for later on or to bring somewhere, stop frying before latkes are fully browned. You can cover them on a platter in cling film and later put them in the oven at 400 degrees for a few minutes to crisp up.
Place new paper towels on top of finished latkes. Using the same oil, repeat process until dough is done, replacing paper towels between layers of latkes. If you are making more than two batches, or when the oil seems watery, change out oil. Potatoes will start to turn pink and then black, so work continuously. When I fry lates with my mom, we put the bowl with the latke dough between us to maximize efficiency.
Enjoy your latkes! They’re traditionally served with applesauce or sour cream. I’m not a huge sour cream fan, so I go applesauce every time.
Jackie, my photographer, was a bit dubious because she’s only ever had the shredded potato latkes. She loved these, though. We meant to save a bunch to eat later, but Jackie, my parents and I ate all of them, and then we all took long, long naps.
All photos by Jackie Friedman.