The sidereal and lunar calendars’ annual do-si-do has a particularly lunatic result this year. Hanukkah lands on Thanksgiving weekend. So I’ve had to postpone my potato latke party until solstice, aka Christmas.
My atheist grandmother wouldn’t have minded that. What her ghost, who lives in my kitchen, would mind is anyone potschkaing (messing) with the ur-recipe. There are many potato pancake recipes in the world; some of them very good.
But there is only One True Latke. It doesn’t have long strands of potato criss-crossed in a crisp study in brown. It doesn’t have a filling. It isn’t made from cooked potatoes. It isn’t made from turnips, sweet potatoes or taro root. Those are all other things, some of them worthy things. If you like that sort of thing.
The One True Latke has a very simple ingredient list. Potato, onion, egg, salt, (black pepper, schmalz). You, too, can make the One True Latke. Perfection lies in technique. First the good news–I’m going to explain the technique. The bad news is that you, the cook, have to stand at the stove the whole time they’re frying. This is à la minute cooking; no stockpiling in a warm oven.
So, proportions. Two potatoes, one egg, half a medium onion, salt to taste. You can scale this up as much as you want. You want starchy, not waxy, potatoes. Russets, or Kennebecs, for example. Peel them. Grate them. This is the first tricky part. There are two ways to grate them. There’s a kind of grater that I’ll call, because I don’t know if it has an official name, a wire grater. It’s a rectangular frame of metal, with a handle; and the rectangle is filled in with matrix of wires with vertical crimps. You lay this flat across a bowl and scrape the potatoes across it. You stop just before pieces of your knuckle skin contaminate the bowl. Pain is a good indicator here.
Alternatively, you can first shred the potatoes in your food processor, and then quickly chop them with the processor blade in several quick pulses. You have to be careful not to overprocess them.
Add to these grated potatoes grated onion. Turn potato mix into a cotton towel and squeeze mightily over a small bowl. Reserve the liquid. Add beaten egg(s) to the potato mixture. Add salt. Add optional pepper.
Schmalz. Chicken fat. Or goose or duck fat. That’s the other optional, but a very useful optional ingredient. Add one or two tablespoons per potato to the potato mixture.
Remember that reserved bowl of potato water? Notice the white precipitate at the bottom of the bowl? Carefully pour out the water and then add the potato starch you’ve just made to the potato mixture. Press plastic wrap against the top of the mixture and refrigerate for a few hours.
There is no flour or matzo meal in this recipe. Three things will hold these latkes together: the egg, the potato starch and the schmalz. And, of course, the fact that you really squeezed those grated potatoes mightily. The chilled schmalz will help the little pancakes hold their shape until the other binders can take over.
Now, you need a large cast iron frying pan or two, oil and a whole lot of Btus. Two pans are better than one. Start the second batch when the first is half done. Now, the miracle oil that Hanukkah commemorates wasn’t the bubbling crude that Dubya and his cronies shoot up on. It was olive oil. On the other hand, potatoes weren’t all that common in the Middle East in those pre-Columbian days. Latkes’ traditional frying medium, in Eastern Europe, was probably goose fat. So let’s compromise. Use a mix of olive oil and schmalz. Or olive oil and canola if you want to stay vegan.
This isn’t sautéing. It isn’t deep frying. It’s shallow frying. Use 1/4-inch of oil. Heat it up. Hot. Not smoking. Use a large soup spoon to slide dollops of chilled potato mixture into the pan. You’re looking for a circle about 2-1/2 to 3 inches. Watch out for spatter. When one side is thoroughly golden brown to brown, carefully turn them over. Once the pan has recovered its heat after the onslaught of batter, you may have to reduce the heat a bit. This is a judgment call that depends heavily on your stove and your pans. It should take about 10 minutes a batch. Spatula out onto paper-towel lined platters and let people serve themselves with latkes and the garnishes (see below). Keep going. Steal a few for yourself as you work. Or train a relief cook.
So that’s it. I suppose the spirits of many grandmothers will offer differing versions. But they’d be wrong. Because my grandmother wasn’t.
You can buy duck fat and goose fat. The same company that makes wonderfully concentrated little packages of demi-glace, also markets duck fat. The package labeling mentions using it to make duck confit, which is hilarious–you’d need about 1,800 of them. But you can easily make your own chicken or duck fat. Just pull off or cut off all the fat from the bird, including the fattier pieces of skin. Chop coarsely. Put into a heavy pan, add a little water and put over medium-low heat. Pour off the rendered fat to use for the latkes. Keep cooking the cracklings until they get crispy. Remove to a paper towel and salt. Eat. The food of the funky gods.
Applesauce & Sour Cream
The One True Latke deserves homemade. Get some Romes, Northern Spy or whatever you like. Core, chop, put into a saucepan with a little water. Cook. Add a little honey. Run through a food mill.
Some people prefer sour cream with their latkes. Hey, I’m easy. Buy some good stuff or make your own–real heavy cream from Maple View Dairy is available and you can sour it with a tablespoon of any good live sour cream, leaving it at room temperature until it clabbers.