By Annette Hinkle
The latke. It’s a fairly simple dish that can be complicated (or compromised) in any number of ways.
Basically, latkes are potato pancakes spiced up with a bit of onion and held together with matzo or bread crumbs and fried in oil — typically topped off with applesauce or sour cream.
And they’ve long been a symbolic staple of Hanukkah.
Last Saturday at Temple Adas Israel’s Hanukkah party, there was a latke contest (taste based, not number consumed) and temple members submitted their best efforts in hopes of taking home top honors.
Which for the uninitiated raises the question — why do latkes symbolize Hanukkah anyway?
“It’s about oily foods,” explained Leah Oppenheimer, director of the temple’s Hebrew School. “It’s the miracle of the oil.”
Oil, of course, is the key component of Hanukkah, the eight day holiday commemorating the victorious Maccabees who, after winning back their Holy Temple in Jerusalem in 165 B.C.E. only had enough oil to burn the menorah for one day, but to their surprise, found it lasted a full eight days.
Though it was the Ashkenazi Jews of eastern Europe who invented the latke as we know it today, Laurel Berger, judge of Saturday’s tasting, explains that “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” actually credits medieval Italy with the first latkes, where Jews made ricotta-filled pancakes fried in olive oil or butter.
“The potato version didn’t appear until the 19th century when tubers were widely planted in famine-ravaged eastern Europe,” noted Berger.
Though she has her own long history with latkes, Berger can’t say it’s been an altogether happy one.
“Years ago, while living in France, I ate an Alsatian potato pancake that landed me in a hospital emergency room,” said Berger who can only guess at the cause. “Rancid oil? My delicate constitution? In any case, I’ve boycotted the potato latke since that unfortunate afternoon.”
It was partly for this reason that Dasee Berkowitz, wife of Rabbi Leon Morris, proposed that Berger judge Temple Adas Israel’s latke contest.
“The other reason is that I have many strong opinions about food,” added Berger, who has written for publications like Gilt Taste and The New York Observer and also moonlights as a private chef.
Though her French experience was less than enjoyable, one might assume that Berger has happier latke memories from childhood. But one might be wrong.
“My mother’s latkes emerged from the frying pan burnt at the edges, flaccid in the middle, and slick with oil — an affect achieved by frying the batter in a meager amount of cooking fat over a wan flame,” said Berger. “On each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, as we switched on the electric menorah, my baby brother and I used to pray that our Italian neighbor would materialize at the front door with a plate of her family’s Christmas ravioli.”
So much for sentiment … last Saturday, it seems, was more about redemption, and Berger is clear about what she considers the ideal latke.
“A crisp, clean-flavored, non-greasy fritter, preferably made from local ingredients, and subtly spiced, would earn high marks,” confided Berger who, when taste-off time arrived, took a seat at a long table with eight or so latkes lined up on paper plates.
Contestants and temple members looked on nervously while Berkowitz offered the play by play and Berger sampled the first contender.
“Takes me back to my childhood,” announced Berger.
Latke number two was also quickly rejected for containing raw potato, while number three, a sweet potato-based offering, came bearing too much onion.
“Don’t take this personally,” counseled Berkowitz as entries were rejected one by one.
“You know, before 1849 the potato was considered poisonous in Europe,” offered Berger without elaboration.
Subsequent latke entries met similar fates — one was rejected as being too oily, another had too much egg and a third might have been a contender, had it not been over cooked.
In the end, however Berger did pick a favorite — a latke by Janet Grossman who credits her electric frying pan for keeping the oil at a consistent 350 degrees.
“I haven’t won anything since high school,” said a delighted Grossman, though she admits she wasn’t really surprised she won. “I’ve been making them many years. One secret is stacking them on their sides so the oil drains off.”
Hanukkah…it’s all about the oil.
In the end, when asked if her search had been fulfilled Berger admitted, “I have never tasted the perfect latke.”
Which prompted Berkowitz to suggest a challah bake-off next year.
JANET GROSSMAN’S LATKES
(BASED ON A RECIPE IN Reform Judaism, Winter 2004)
Winner, Best Latke at Hanukkah Party, 2012
6 large Yukon Gold potatoes (or 9 medium), peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
1 Tbsp. salt
¼ tsp. freshly ground pepper
1 heaping cup matzo meal
1 large onion, peeled and cut into chunks
1 cup peanut oil + 3 cups canola oil for frying
1. Grate the potatoes in a food processor, drain well
2. Grate the onions in a food processor*
3. Preheat the oil to 350 degrees
4. Using the cutting blade of the food processor, blend ¼ to 1/3 of the shredded potatoes with the onions until it makes a smooth paste
5. Add to rest of potatoes and fold in gently until well mixed
6. Beat the eggs well with salt and pepper and mix well into potato mixture
7. Fold in matzo meal until well distributed
8. Drop spoonfuls of the mixture (1/4 to 1/3 cup) into the oil; then flatten slightly
9. Fry until golden brown on each side
10. Drain each latke with a slotted spoon and stack on its side on crumpled paper towels
11. Serve with applesauce and/or sour cream
*The potatoes and onions can also be separately grated by hand and then simply mixed together. Shreds aren’t necessary.