A Latke by Any Other Name…

Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah, and of course that means latkes.

Hanukkah is one Jewish holiday where I feel right at home food-wise, since I grew up eating latkes. Of course we didn’t call them latkes – we called them potato pancakes, and they are a standard in the Slovak kitchen. My Grandma used to come up and make them for us in our kitchen sometimes on Saturday nights. We were so anxious to eat them, I don’t think we even waited to all sit down at the table together – we just lined up next to the electric fry pan with our plates and practically grabbed them from the spatula as Grandma was laying them onto paper towels to drain!

My Grandma grated her potatoes by hand using the small holes of the grater and never drained the liquid. This meant she needed a fair amount of flour to sop things up, and ended up with a rather thick, dense, floppy and wonderfully delicious pancake.

The potato pancakes I make now are a bit different than the ones I grew up with. They are based on my mother-in-law Irene’s recipe, and they are pretty perfect if you ask me. Actually, Irene didn’t really give me a recipe, just approximate amounts and a gestalt. But I decided to try and nail down the amounts tonight as I made them.

The trick is to use the large grating blade of the food processor to shred the potatoes and onion, and thento drain away the liquid. Eggs hold the potatoes together and coarse motsa meal fills in the spaces without the heaviness of flour. Cook the latkes in an electric fry pan – it’s really so much easier and safer than doing it over the stove and you get a more consistent pancake as long as you don’t overload the pan. If you do it right, what you end up with is sort of a latke nest, with lots of crevices of crispiness on the outside and a few wonderful soft pockets of old time potato pancake in the middle.

Sour cream and homemade applesauce are the only other things you need. My kids, of course, also like ketchup.

Latkes (or Potato Pancakes)

For this batch, I used Yukon Gold potatoes and Streits Motsa meal that I borrowed from my friend Rachel down the hall. (Without Rachel I would never cook – she never runs out of anything…) I had never used that brand, and I like it – it is a coarser grind than Manichevitz, and so instead of just sopping up the egg and clumping together, the meal sort of stayed aloof on the outside of the shredded potatoes. This made for a less dense pancake. I also used canola oil because it is healthier, and noticed no difference from the traditional vegetable oil. You can vary the amount of onion depending on your tastes. Mr TBTAM likes his on the oniony side.

3 pounds potatoes (I used Yukon gold tonight)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 large onions
A little less than 1/4 cup Motsah Meal
salt
Pepper
Canola oil for frying

Peel potatoes. Shred using the food processor and remove to a large bowl. Shred the onion the same way and add to the bowl. Open out a large clean dishtowel onto the counter and dump the potato onion mixture on it. Top with a second clean towel and lightly roll to mop up the excess liquid (Don’t overdo it, you need a little of the potato starch and liquid for things to stick together.) Dump back into the bowl and add the eggs and the motsah meal. Season with salt and pepper.

Heat about a 1/2 inch of canola oil in electric frying pan at highest heat (mine goes to 400 degrees Fahrenheit). Scoop some of potato mixture into a large spoon, then put into the oil, flattening with the back of the spoon. Cook until the edges start to crisp and the underside is light brown, then gently flip and cook the other side.

Remove from pan to a cookie sheet lined with paper towels or newspaper. Keep warm in a low oven while cooking the rest of the potato pancakes.

Serve with sour cream and warm homemade applesauce.
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This of course, is not the only way to make latkes.

4Bureka Boy has a great round up of recipes and methods on his blog, as does Slashfood, whose latkes look suspiciously like mine.

4Epicurious does a nice job on technique, and uses a mixture of butter and oil to fry in their Classic Potato Pancake recipe.

4For healthier versions, see Got No Milk (no fat) and Diabetes Daily (lo-carb in the comments section).

4And, for a genuine latke making lesson from a genuine Jewish Mother, watch Feed Me BubbieLatkes.

Happy Hanukkah!

14 Responses to A Latke by Any Other Name…

  1. I would wait next to the skillet for these…they look perfect.
    How nice to have a neighbor with full pantry down the hall….

  2. I just learned the “squeeze out the extra liquid” trick this year. Makes them crisp up quicker. But another trick was to saute the onions first, then mix them in with the potatoes, then add the egg, matzah meal, salt and pepper. Works well with 2 cooks; Darling Spouse grates while I saute. Awesomely sweet onions.

  3. There is another variable in latke preparation:oxidation. If the mix is alllowed to stand for an hour or two prior to frying, the potatoes oxidize and the latkes are grey to tan in color. If fresh mix is fried, the latkes stay white to cream colored. The flavor is different.

    Potato breeders have, it seems, been breeding varieties less prone to browning. Thus the latkes of today, no matter what the recipe, may not be the same as the latkes of yesteryear.

  4. I love latkes. Yours look great. Thanks for the mention; I love your site – just discovered it, and I’ll add you to my blogroll.

  5. I grew up in a non-Jewish part of the country– rural Arkansas. Yet, my mother made potatoe pancakes. They were usually made from leftover mashed potatoes. They were wonderful, though not as pretty as yours. I’ll have to ask her about any heritage connection.

  6. I remember potato pancakes from my childhood as well – but as a meatless meal during lent, not for Hannukah (yes, grandparents were Slovak as well). My husband will never let me forget the time when I was pregnant with Eldest and wanted potato pancakes (darn cravings). I ended up peeling more than 10 pounds of potatoes – for me and husband! I don’t think I’ve made them since…

  7. Katie – I mean it, I would be completely helpless as a cook without her as a neighbor. Rachel if you are reading this, THANKS!!!

    #1 – Hmm.. that sounds interesting. Got 7 more nights to try variations…

    Anonymous – What was interesting this year is that my potatoes did not change color at all. I thought it was because the shreds were larger than in the past, but from what you said, I now think it must have been a new breed of potato. It was nice…

    Kitchentta – Ditto. 🙂

    RL:
    I’ve never had good luck making potato pancaked from mashed potatoes. They seem to come apart all over the pan…

    Artemis – Now that I think of it, I think we did have them more often in Lent. Comfort food they are…

  8. With a belly full of (my own) latkes I still can’t help ogling other peoples’ latke photos and recipes. Nice job! Your family recipe is similar to mine.

  9. You’re right, of course — given the choice between laughing and crying, laughing is generally the right way to go!

  10. It always helps to let the batter rest for a while before frying. Same holds true for matzoh balls and other pancakes and similar things.

  11. Nink-
    Interesting – I always worried that it would turn brown if I let it sit for too long. Although the truth is, by the time you’ve gotten a batch or two fried, the batter has sat for awhile. Which may explain why the second or third fried batch is better than the first (sort of like pancakes that way, huh?)

    Thanks for your comment!

  12. tbtam – if you add pureed or finely chopped onions to the potatoes quickly, the onions slow the potatoes’ oxidation process, so they don’t turn brown as quick. i’m still not a fan of letting the batter sit, though.

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