Thursday, December 6, 2007

Playing with Potato Latkes

Mmmhh. Latkes, or fried potato pancakes, are a staple item during the 8 day Jewish festival of Hanukkah. Legend has it that after the Macabeees defeated the Syrians and reclaimed their temple, there was only enough purified oil to light the ceremonial lamp for one day, but it miraculously burned for 8, until new oil could be made.

Since the Jewish people are among the world's most prolific at playing with their food to excess, the tradition I and many other Jewish people have grown up with is to recreate the miracle of the oil by indulging in fried foods for 8 days. Add in the exchange of gifts that has become common in the West, and you've got the makings for some serious playing! In addition to latkes, it is common to eat jelly donuts, matzoh meal pancakes with jelly, and as many other fried foods as the creative playster can fabricate during this holiday.

For as long as I could remember, my mother made Latkes using her blender. She would work the basic ingredients together into a mushy mass (peeled potatoes, onion, egg, salt, pepper and matzoh meal - which is grated matzoh similar to breadcrumb), and fry it in oil in this amazing Magnalite skillet that she had. Served with apple sauce and sour cream (unless it was a meat meal - even though we didn't keep Kosher - it just didn't seem right to have a container of dairy on the table with a meat meal), they were very greasy, but good. During my 20s, loyal to my weight loss plan, I tried baking some of the batter in the oven, but it never came out quite right.

As I learned more about latke making, I found out that a lot of cooks shred the potato using a grater (or food processor), squeeze out the liquid, and then assemble the pancakes. To my palate, however, these seemed more like hash browns than latkes. However, they didn't seem to need as much oil as the blendered batter. At some point, my now-husband Bob agreed to grate potatoes for latkes at the annual family Hanukkah get together at Mom's house, so Mom bought a box grater.

It was the second or third year that we did this that Mom explained that were were not shredding the potatoes properly. To get a real latke, she explained, you have to use the smallest holes on the grater, not the large ones. "It doesn't taste right without a little knuckle in it" she would say. We thought she was nuts. But, because we are always willing to play with our food, we gave it a try. We learned that grating the potatoes and onions through the small holes creates a completely different kind of pancake than either the blender or large hole grater methods. The "small hole" pancake is crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside. But it is hard on the hands, especially when feeding a crowd. Enter the Cuisinart!

I looked for the finest grater wheel I could get for our Cuisinart (and I assume that most food processors have a similar die). This is actually intended for grating hard cheeses. But it makes killer latkes!

So - first step - set up the mise en place:

Since Bob had just used the food processor to make chili powders from his garden harvest, he left some of the residue in the Kitchen Aid mixer's work bowl to season the latkes. This step is definitely optional, but it gave this batch of pancakes a wonderful zing!

This is everything needed to make a "half" batch of latkes, which feeds 2 people plus leftovers. There is also black pepper, which you will see later.

And now - a quick digression regarding the matzoh meal:

Come Passover time, it is tradition, and seems economically sensible, to buy a five pound package of matzoh, because it costs the same as 2 loose 1# boxes - but we only use about 2 boxes during the holiday as we have no kids. So - what to do with all that extra matzoh? PLAY WITH IT! Put it in the food processor with the chopping blade and you get: Matzoh Meal!

And so, Bob began:

Potatoes are Grated - Before


This year, Bob wanted to try reducing the liquid in the potatoes. So he picked up the metal coffee filter you see on the right, and set it over a bowl, then let the potatoes drain. As you can see, he extracted quite a bit of liquid:

Next - the onions get the same treatment as the potatoes:

Once the onions have gone through the grating wheel, Bob removes the wheel and adds the chopping blade:

This year, he also decided to experiment with separating the egg, which we'd never done before. It always helps to work with good quality, fresh eggs - these "Nature's Acres" eggs are from a farm in Berlin/Millersburg Ohio and came from Mustard Seed Market.,

Pepper is added next:

Finally, any bits of potato and onion that were "left over" by the grating wheel are added:

This is what it looks like after the chopping blade does its thing. Bob next whipped the egg white to a soft peak:

The drained potatoes are then added to the food processor work bowl with the onion-yolk mixture and stirred in with a spatula:

The contents of the food processor work bowl are then added to the beaten egg while in the Mixer work bowl:

Even though the potatoes have oxidized a bit - bringing all the ingredients together at the end does a great job disguising this visual imperfection.

The last ingredient added is the matzoh meal. Whether it's latkes, Potato Kugel, Matzoh Balls, or any other dish using matzoh meal as bread crumb - you can never rely upon a recipe to get the correct amount into the batter - you have to feel for the right texture. Too much matzoh meal and your food will be hard and heavy; too little and it will fall apart. We add the matzoh meal 1 TB at a time and work it in. In this case, 2TB was enough.

The Batter is Ready for Frying

We use either a 12" cast iron or this larger All Clad to fry the latkes - Bob used the All Clad because he could fit the entire batch of latkes in the pan at once. We used peanut oil for its great flavor and high smoke point.

Flip the pancakes one time only!

Add a Dollop of Apple Sauce and It is Good to Go!

Yum! And today, I have leftovers for lunch to reheat in the toaster oven (the microwave will turn them to mush, the oven will crisp them) with sour cream! Double yum!

And - the entire process of creating the batter took less than half an hour; the frying about 10 minutes. So - everyone Jewish or not can enjoy some latkes this Holiday Season, even if they don't want to spend a lot of time playing with their weeknight dinner food.

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