The Evolving Latke
Because it was technically a full meal, someone would make brisket or roast chicken. Someone else would make vegetables and salad. But the centerpiece of the meal, the only dish that counted that evening, was the latkes—crispy on the outside, tender on the inside. And we’d take sides over what accompanied them. Those who were on the savory side ate them with salt and sour cream. The rest would go for sugar and/or applesauce.
David Wasserman, owner of coffee truck Joes on the Nose, grew up in Brooklyn eating them. He’s an applesauce guy—and the applesauce, he say, was his mom’s homemade, made using a Foley mill with a variety of Northeast apples.
“While others had Christmas trees and cookies, we had potato pancakes,” he recalls. “My mother tended to make a big batch of latkes, then freeze them and warm them up in the oven through the holiday and after. They were around a half-inch thick and silver dollar pancake size.”
Chef Matt Gordon of Urban Solace, Solace & the Moonlight Lounge and Sea & Smoke, also grew up eating latkes. He apparently swings both ways on the savory/sweet spectrum of accompaniments. “I’ve always loved them—with applesauce as a kid and with sour cream and chives and other yummy stuff as I got older,” he says. Today he goes “full Monty with the sour cream and applesauce.” Gordon remembers eating them and playing dreidel—and arguing with his sister about who won) when he was a kid in Los Angeles.
Latkes may be iconic Ashkenazic Chanukah food now, but they’re actually relatively new in Jewish history. The Maccabees—the priestly family who led the successful rebellion against the Syrians back in 168 B.C.E. which the holiday celebrates—never would have had latkes since they would never have seen a potato. It was only at the end of the 18th century that German Jews began making potato pancakes, but not for Chanukah. And these potato pancakes weren’t just from grated spuds, as we’ve come to assume are traditional, but also mashed, according to Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.
But potatoes became a staple of Eastern European Jewish food and eventually the potato latke, made from hand-grated russet potatoes, became associated with Chanukah in Eastern Europe and then the U.S. by the mid-19th century, as immigrants arrived here.
Given how relatively recently the potato latke became part of Jewish history, why not riff on tradition and create other forms of pancakes to celebrate the festival of lights? After all, the main point of the holiday is to celebrate the miracle of the single jar of oil that burned for eight days.
“We change them up a lot,” Gordon says. “You could start with the base recipe using 50% starchy potato, but for the rest you can add shredded sweet potatoes or root veggies like beets and celery root, lots of herbs, or fennel.”
Wasserman came to adapt an unusual recipe from The New York Times.
“I remember my mother using sweet potatoes when I was a teenager,” Wasserman says, “and I’m always a fan of mixing things up. I always like to serve the curried sweet potato recipe alongside a traditional recipe during our annual Chanukah party.”
Before you go off and make any of these recipes, Gordon and Wasserman have some tips to make the pancakes as crispy as possible. Gordon emphasizes squeezing the heck out of them. “It’s worth investing in some cheesecloth because it really is the easiest to use to really apply pressure to them,” he explains. “You want to squeeze all the water out of the taters before you mix in your other stuff.” And, he adds that it’s important to use plenty of oil. He likes grapeseed oil because it’s better under heat than olive oil.
Wasserman, however, advises against using a ton of oil. “It’s unnecessary to deep fry latkes,” he says. “I use just enough oil to cook it.”
And, he warns, “As in any pancake, the first batch in the pan will be your worst. I always eat the first round before anyone else gets it.”
My recommendations? Fry them in cast-iron skillets to get them really crispy. And if you’re entertaining the crowd, make them ahead of time and freeze them. Then reheat them in the oven. Making latkes is a hot and messy affair. It’s fun, but it may not be what you want to do when company is there.