My late father, to our family’s way of thinking, was the world champion latke maker. To the uninitiated: A latke is a potato pancake and it can be a thing of beauty. My Dad’s were the absolute best. He never used a recipe. He just knew exactly how much of each ingredient he needed.
The potato pancake is largely a central and eastern European dish, prominent in Slavic, Teutonic, Scandinavian and Jewish cultures. Each puts its own spin on the dish but the one essential – grated potatoes – is central to its flavor and composition.
With the advent and ubiquity of food processors, the labor-intensive process of grating by hand became a virtual thing of the past, but there is a noticeable difference in texture. I’ll admit to using my food processor because I’m often in a need-for-speed situation. If I have the time, though, I’ll bring out the old box grater and apply some elbow grease.
Potato pancakes, also known as latkes, are eaten year-round, but at this time of the year, with the approach of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the dish is especially relevant. In the Jewish tradition, the use of oil is a part of the holiday in commemoration of the miracle that occurred after the defeat of the Assyrian-Helenist occupiers by the Maccabees, when one day’s worth of oil lasted for eight days in the redeemed Temple.
In modern Israel, that tradition of using oil in cooking has been extended to the widespread production of doughnuts, fried in oil and then filled with jelly.
But let’s get back to latkes. Potatoes, as you know, are laden with water. A proper latke also includes grated onion and onions contain a lot of water, too. In order to get a crisp latke that holds its other ingredients, it is necessary to squeeze out as much water as you possibly can after you’ve grated the potatoes and onions. There are several ways to do this, but the most effective I’ve found is placing the potato and onion shreds in a clean kitchen towel and twisting it until the liquid starts coming out. Then reverse the and do it again.
Once you’ve extracted as much of the liquid as possible, place the grated potatoes and onion in a bowl, add flour (remember: we’re making a batter), salt and pepper and beaten egg. Mix everything well, then cover it and let it rest in the refrigerator for a while before frying.
Traditionally, latkes are served with either sour cream and/or apple sauce. I like both, so I created what I call a Latke Napoleon to dress up what has become a fairly common dish. I stack the pancakes this way: pancake, sour cream, pancake, applesauce, pancake, sour cream, dollop of caviar and garnish with freshly snipped chives.
4 large Russet potatoes, peeled, set in water
1 small onion, peeled
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 cup flour
1 cup applesauce
1 cup sour cream
1 large egg, beaten
Caviar and chives (optional)
canola oil for frying
Grate the potatoes and onion into a bowl, then place them in a strainer over another bowl so that most of the water drains out. Place the potatoes and onions in a clean kitchen towel and squeeze out the rest of the water.
Salt and pepper the mixture and add the baking powder and flour, beaten egg and mix well.
In a large frying pan, heat the oil to frying temperature, about 360.
Using a large spoon, drop the batter into the oil, forming pancakes, frying them until they are golden brown. Turn only once, frying again until golden on the second side, then place on paper towels to drain. Keep the pancakes warm in the oven.
Serve the pancakes with plenty of applesauce and sour cream. Alternatively, make a “Napoleon” by stacking the pancakes thusly: Pancake, topped with sour cream, pancake, topped with applesauce, pancake, topped with a dollop of sour cream and caviar on top. Garnish with chives.
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