So, we are in the midst of celebrating Channukah, a holiday that marks two significant miracles. The one that we focus on in modern times is the miracle of oil (a jar of pure oil meant to last one day instead lasted eight, leaving enough time for more to be made to light the holy menorah) but no less important is the miracle of military triumph (of the Maccabees over the Greeks – an amazing tale of zeal defeating strength.) At various times and places throughout history the focus has been shone more on one or the other miracle. Here in modern America where we are, for the most part, a peaceful and peace-loving people we focus on the miracle of the oil. But this year in particular the story of military might is resonating with me, like this. Had there not been the Maccabees, willing to fight and die to defeat the Greeks; had their inner flame not burned bright enough, there would not have been the miracle of the oil. There would have been no need to resanctify the Holy Temple if there weren’t Jews who refused to douse their Jewish souls to accommodate the Greeks. This year I wish for all of us, those who celebrate Jewish holidays and those who celebrate other holidays or none at all, that our inner flames are strong enough to allow miracles to happen.
Why do we eat potato latkes (pancakes) and sufgoniote (jelly doughnuts) on Channukah? Because they are fried in oil, obviously, thereby marking the miracle of the oil. So we eat fried things. Also, as Channukah usually falls in the darkest coldest part of winter all that oily food keeps us warm and sleek as seal pups. (And, for some, seriously dyspeptic.) Here are a couple of variations on a theme for your Channukah fried-food table. Here, too, are a couple important tips on making latkes. Serve latkes with crisp green salad and lentil vegetable soup to absorb and mitigate some of that oily goodness. Shine on, little flames.
On making latkes so the potatoes don’t turn funny colors and the texture is good: The onion will keep the potatoes from oxidizing to the trick is to grate a piece of the onion first so the grater (either a handheld grater or the food processor blade) has onion juice on it and there is onion in the bowl. Then grate some onion every few bits of potato and mix what’s in the bowl well to make sure the newer potato gets the benefit of the onion. If you are using a food processor use the grating blade then remove the grated vegetables out of the bowl of the processor, replace the grating blade with the chopping blade and half chop the veggies. Some long strings are ok but you need enough chopped up to bind the shreds together. Also, the best potatoes for latkes are russet. You can use others but you will need to add more flour to bind them.
On frying perfect, crisp, not too oily, brown, beautiful latkes: First of all, you need a good pan. By this I mean a pan that has a flat bottom and is heavy enough to distribute heat evenly. This does not mean an expensive pan, just a good one. Second, choose your oil. I always use either pure (not extra-virgin) olive oil or vegetable oil. I hate the way canola tastes and smells, peanut has too much flavor of its own, corn is ok. Butter will cook ok if it is clarified but adds a lot of its own flavor so I don’t like it for latkes. Schmaltz (chicken fat) is ok but is very rich, hard to come by, and makes the meal meat (for those who keep kosher this means no dairy with the meal.) Heat your oil until it is hot but not smoking. This is important. If it starts to smoke, turn the heat down. If the latke doesn’t sizzle when you put it in the pan turn the heat up a little. Having the oil too hot will smoke out your house and burn the edges of the latkes. Having the oil too cold will allow the latkes to soak up too much oil and make them yucky. I cook my latkes by about the quarter cup, made into a small ball in my palm then put in the oil and spread out (carefully) with my fingers to make a flattish round. (You can use a spatula or spoon to do the flattening.) Cook until one side is brown, moving in the pan to cook evenly if necessary. Flip and cook the other side. Make sure to remove any little bits that come off the latkes from the oil, they will start to burn and stick to your latkes, which makes them have unappealing little burned bits on them. Once your latke “batter” is ready I recommend making a test latke. Taste it and adjust seasonings as needed then cook the rest. Latkes can be made a la minute (to order) or in advance and reheated in the oven. They can be kept in the fridge or frozen with good results. Cook on!
Potato and Smoked Cheddar Latkes
- 5 large potatoes
- 1 medium white onion
- 4-5 oz smoked cheddar
- 1/2 cup flour
- 3 eggs
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp ground cayenne pepper
- salt and black pepper
- oil for frying
Peel the potatoes and put in water to keep from oxidizing. Peel the onion and cut into eighths. Using the grating blade of the food processor grate the potatoes and onions (see note above) then half chop them with the chopping blade. Grate the cheese on a hand grater (trust me, it works better this way.) Put the potato-onion mixture into a large bowl and mix in everything else. Heat pan and oil and fry one sample latke, taste and adjust salt and pepper if needed. Fry latkes (see note above.) Eat, serve to friends, enjoy, stay warm all winter on the oil.
The Most Delicious Apple Latke/Fritter/Doughnuts
- 4 large or 5 medium apples
- 1 1/2 cups flour (you can use 1 cup white and 1/2 cup whole wheat)
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
- oil for frying (see note above – pure olive oil is fine here, too)
- 1/2 cup sugar for tossing
- 1 Tbs ground cinnamon for tossing
Put the flour, eggs, cinnamon, sugar, nutmeg, and cardamom into a large bowl. Peel and grate the apples (use a hand-held, old-fashioned cheese grater with large holes) into the bowl. Mix everything together. Using two tablespoons form loose quenelles (vaguely football shaped ovals) with the batter and carefully put in the hot oil (see note above about frying.) Cook on one side until it is browned then turn over and cook the other side. Remove cooked fritters to a sheet pan. If you are serving them immediately, allow them to cool slightly then toss with the cinnamon and sugar, that you have mixed together in a large bowl. If you are not serving them right away do not toss yet. Store in the fridge until you want to serve them then heat for 7 minutes or so in a 350 degree oven. Then toss in the cinnamon sugar. If you have leftovers after you have tossed and served them (good luck with that!) you can store in a tightly closed container then retoss in cinnamon sugar before serving/eating again. These are DELICIOUS! You can use any kind of apple but the best are apples with a bit of a tang to them instead of ones that are purely sweet. The more flavorful the apple, the more flavorful the fritters.