Hanukkah recipes are passed down from generation to generation. There are hundreds of recipes floating around on the Internet, but I thought it best to consult a friend with trained taste buds. Here is what Warren Bobrow has to say.
Warren Bobrow’s favorite Hanukkah foods
Of all the holiday foods I look forward to, there are two dishes that clearly connect my stomach to the past. The first is a rousing bowl of matzo ball soup. The other, specifically a Hanukkah dish, is a plate of crispy potato latkes, cooked in a heavy cast iron pan.
I forewarn you. This is a Jewish story, so it is repetitive and sometimes fahklumpt (a confused story, for those who are not in the know), told by a kvetch (a complainer) who secretly loves life and food and words and work, and tells a story full of fond memories.
My great-grandmother Yetta made excellent latkes. During these eight days of Hanukkah (eight chances to get it right . . . to be exact), we celebrate the past by reliving these flavors and the stories that go with them each time we bite into a steaming morsel of grated potato, egg, onion and a bit of vegetable oil, made straight from her recipe.
Generations of cooks have grated potatoes for latkes in celebration of Hanukkah. You will not be the first or the last. And every family has their own special recipe, their own special stories.
Bubby Yetta was particularly interested in not scraping her knuckles. Even so, she used to say that if you don’t catch your knuckle on the potato grater, the latkes couldn’t possibly taste good. Something about the physical act of grating potatoes already connects me to the old days when Bubby made the latkes every evening during Hanukkah.
Onions also resonate in my memory: the tears that ran down her cheeks as she grated the onions were not tears of joy. We heard the same kvetching every year, and carry on as we make our own history.
Every day of Hanukkah, Ur-Bubby Yetta would scrape and grate until the job was done. Much hushed conversation would follow. Were the latkes going to be good? If not, what would we do, there was no place in those days to buy frozen latkes in the supermarket!
And with each potato and onion grated, each tear fallen, each latke fried, another memory was made. Years of latke conversation would follow . . . How about the ones we made twenty years ago? Did potatoes taste differently then, or was it a specific taste that stuck in our memories?
So careful with the grater, and accept that you’ll invariably catch your knuckle at least once, and that you may well have the battle scars to prove that you made them from scratch. And stories to tell.
Important: You can’t use just any old potatoes to make latkes. In Switzerland, any of the type C potatoes listed on page 5 of the Landi site are suitable. Don’t use baking potatoes; you will end up with mashed potatoes, not latkes.2 large type C potatoes (about 1.5 pounds) (grated into long, thin strips) 2 large eggs (must be at room temperature) 1 medium white onion, very finely grated (watch those knuckles!) 8 scallion greens or green onion tops Sea Salt and freshly ground black pepper Vegetable oil for frying
- Grate potatoes into a bowl of cold water. (This releases the starch and is essential!) Make sure that you use the large hole of a box grater. Let rest for about 15 minutes.
- Transfer grated potatoes from the water into a dry bowl. Press with your hands or a wooden spoon until all the liquid is removed from the potato. Pat dry with paper towels.
Note: It is essential for the potato mixture to be as dry as possible before adding the egg and onion mixture; otherwise the latkes will be a loose mess and will never become crisp, no matter how many prayers you say over the bowl!
- Add eggs, onion and slivers of scallion greens. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Note: It is also essential to mix by hand. Much conversation about how much salt and how little pepper or vice versa will follow!
- Heat a cast iron or Swiss diamond frying pan with 1 1/4 cm / ½ inch of vegetable oil until very hot, about 200° C / 400° F.
Note: Be very careful. Hot oil is dangerous. Do not splash hot oil on yourself – a good burn from hot oil will give you something else to complain about.
- Carefully drop 1 heaping tablespoon of the potato mixture into the pan. Cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes on each side.
Note: The pan should hold no more than five or six latkes per batch. Any more and the oil will get cold and the latkes will be oil-soaked!
Jewish legend has it that sodden latkes are a curse upon the family; one could never have that. A tummy ache? Maybe, a fever? Perhaps…. But to serve latkes sopping with oil? Never!
- Turn the latkes over in the pan and continue cooking for another 3-4 minutes until uniformly golden brown and crunchy. Transfer to a baking sheet and keep warm in a 100° C/ 200° C oven for up to 30 minutes before serving.
I prefer my latkes interspersed with dots of scallions and served with a dollop of sour cream, known as crème acidulée in French and sauerrahm in German, and a rosette of smoked salmon. My wife, Julie, on the other hand, prefers her latkes with freshly made applesauce or compôte.
A further gourmet method is with a gently placed spoonful of caviar, sprinkled with chopped egg and onion, over a smidgen of crème fraiche or sour cream.
Whatever way you enjoy them, you will certainly connect your stomach with the “history” contained in every crunchy treat on your plate.
I can picture Yetta, hunched over her bowl of grated potatoes, her smile firmly in my memory, knowing that her recipe would live on through the generations – and that specific connection leads directly to my stomach.
A wine recommendation? Serve a crisp and lightly oaked sparkling wine such as Champagne or fendant.