My sister Nancy was good enough to give me a birthday present a few years ago which was a handwritten recipe book of my mother’s and Bubbe’s recipes-it was one of the best gifts I ever received.
Latkes, or potato pancakes, are a food commonly associated with the nations of Eastern and Central Europe. They are the national dish of Belarus. For Jews, they are a very traditional dish associated with Chanukah. Making latkes from a recipe in this book on Chanukah every year brings back great childhood memories and always bonds me back with my mother and my Bubbe. To celebrate the holidays this year, I would like to share the recipe with you.
The best part of Chanukah growing up in my house was when my mother or Bubbe would make their potato latkes, which was one of their best dishes. While many Jews make latkes only during Chanukah, latkes are great to make with any holiday, special event, or family dinner.
As a child, we used to just eat the latkes as a meal. Today, I serve Hebrew National hot dogs with them-they are a great compliment to these latkes. Latkes are a great substitute for traditional potato dishes for any meal any time of the year.
My mother and grandmother were born in Poland and both were amazing cooks and bakers. I was raised on potatoes. In addition to Chanukah latkes, they both made a number of great European potato dishes like potato pudding, potato stuffing (usually stuffed in veal), potato cakes, fried potato kreplach, and a potato dish called “shislkas.”
Going to my Bubbe’s house when I was a child was a supreme culinary experience which I have never matched (I even took a bus trips down Route 81 on weekends from Ithaca to Wilkes-Barre during my college years to visit my Bubbe, get a great meal and a return care package). My mother came a very close second to my Bubbe in terms of her preparation of baked goods and holiday meal dishes like latkes.
I really believe there is a huge difference between a potato latke and a potato pancake (by the way, I have a great source who told me that Dan Qualyle could spell the work “latke”). While a “latke” is generally referred to as a generic potato pancake http://tinyurl.com/yso6rx, a latke is in fact a special food in itself.
A great latke must be fried, not baked and they must be made in oil. Latkes are supposed to be very caloric, especially if you embellish them in sour cream and/or white sugar. The ingredients for a potato latke must be old school -i.e. you can not fry them in blended or esoterically flavored oils or eat them with reduced fat sour cream.
You must use good old peanut oil, which is more expensive, but much better in terms of frying and taste (I learned that from watching Alton Brown on “Good Eats”- on the Food Network-he is the best chef they have to learn the fundamentals of cooking and baking ).
If you are on a restricted diet, don’t mess with the recipe to make your doctors happy-you don’t have to deny yourself for one special night-just eat less of them-like three or four of them (I dare you). In terms of the other ingredients, they are basic, so you don’t have to run to Fresh Market or Whole Foods (except to get really good apple sauce) to get the right potatoes, onions, etc. I got a 10 pound bag of Idaho Baking Potatoes on sale at Winn Dixie for two bucks the other day.
I have seen all kinds of potato pancakes called latkes made various ways (IHOP makes a great one), some very good, but I will go out on a limb and state in no uncertain terms that this recipe will make you the supreme latke. But it has to be made correctly-and it is labor intensive.
You have to use Idaho Baking Potatoes, which are the hardest potatoes to grate. I tried using the more expensive, normally better tasting, softer Yukon Golds and Red Potatoes, but they were too watery. You are not making mashed potatoes here. Again, do not use any other oil except peanut oil.
AND MOST IMPORTANT, you have to grate the potatoes by hand. Do you not use a food processor, blender or other device to break down the potatoes.
Be prepared to stand a long time in one place (wear good sneakers or shoes and stand on a rug if you have tile floors) and to use a lot of elbow grease. It helps to enslave your children or get your dad to come over to peel and grate the potatoes. Use only non stick frying pans-have two or three on the stove ready to go if you are making a lot of latkes. Also, making latkes results in a huge mess, both in preparation and cooking, so be prepared to get yelled at by your spouse for making the kitchen look like there was a food fight in it (another Chanukah ritual in my household).
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