When I was but a wee thing, one of my all-time favourite foods was the latke—or, as I knew it then, the potato pancake. My father would make them for me on weekends when I pleaded with him, and on sunny days we would crowd ‘round the giant utility spool in the side yard we’d set up as a table for latke festivities. The potato pancake represented, for me, the pinnacle of food deliciousness, featuring not only the potato, which is one of nature’s finest foods, but also frying, which enhances almost every food imaginable. The sour cream and applesauce on top (yes, we were a two topping family) were just icing on the already deliriously delightful cake.
I wasn’t aware that the potato pancake was a seasonal food with a long and great tradition; all I knew about potato pancakes were that I loved them, and I always, always won the potato pancake eating contests we hosted when my friends slept over. Years of training had prepared me for the heat of competition, allowing me to shovel in unimaginable amounts of potato pancakes, all toppings included, while my friends looked on in awe. Or possibly horror, given that my table manners around my favourite foods tended to turn a bit feral.
With age came understanding of the full flower of the greatness of the latke, as I then learned my childhood favourite was called, right down to the Chanukah miracle.
‘But,’ I cried to my Jewish friends, ‘what do you mean latkes are a seasonal food? How can you live without them in your life every day?!’
December for me is always a particularly trying time on the Internet, because everyone is always talking about latkes, and even I, with my seemingly bottomless appetites for them, actually do have limits. There are only so many I can eat, and there’s only so much drooling over latkes I can do before needing to get back to work. It doesn’t help when they post pictures of my favoured frying pan charmer in all its glory, especially when bedecked with festive toppings. If I may be frank, just writing about them is making me cast longing glances at the stove.
I may not be Jewish, and my house may lack a menorah come December, but I am utterly serious about latkes. At no point in history has my taste for this glorious food slackened, and I am a ferocious advocate for latke-eating for all, preferably at all times. It’s just that in December, it seems that the world comes together to share my love of the latke, and for a few brief days, together we can agree on at least one thing: latkes are among the best foods ever, and there should be more of them in our lives.
I’ve been around the block a few times when it comes to latkes. I’ve had them made with sweet potatoes and yams, dressed up with fancy toppings and fried in a range of oils. I’ve had them with a variety of colourful seasonings and added ingredients, from apples to jalapeños, but when it comes down to it, I keep coming back to the old recipe we used to use on lazy Saturday mornings when I raced upstairs to my father’s room at the crack of dawn to demand potato pancakes for breakfast.
It starts with a few potatoes; technically, you want to use waxy potatoes like Yukon Golds, because they hold up nicely, but I recall that we used Russets with no ill effects in my youth. You start by peeling your potatoes (and oh, how this pains me, because I love potato peels), and then you grate them; none of this mincing in a food processor business, oh no. Use a grater. And then pick up fistfuls of potato gratings and squeeze them out over the sink to get rid of some of the starch and moisture, marveling at the whitish crusts it forms on your skin.
You could, if you want to be more fastidious, dump your grated potatoes into a colander and press against them with a wooden spoon, or a spatula, or perhaps your hands. But it’s just not as satisfying, I’ll be honest with you.
Once your potatoes are sufficiently squeezed, it’s time to grate in some yellow onion. Don’t mess about with red onions or shallots or green onions or pearl onions or sweet onions. Just your standard yellow onion. If you want to be a crier about it, try sticking a match in your mouth (sulfur end out, please). Sometimes it helps. Maybe it doesn’t; perhaps it’s just a placebo effect. Stir the onion about a bit to get it evenly distributed, if you’d be so kind, and then add salt to taste.
Crack an egg into your potato mixture; I tend to use about one egg to every three-ish potatoes, depending on their size and my mood. The goal is to have an eggy glue for your latkes, after all, not to make a rather potatoey omelet. Stir everything together again, and sprinkle in some chickpea flour as a binder, if you’re going to make potato pancakes like we did (and don’t ask me why we started using chickpea flour, because I don’t know—perhaps it was the only thing in the cupboard). Just a few teaspoons is all you need.
This is the point where you’ll need a large frying pan, and I favour cast iron for greater heat control and more even distribution. We always used peanut oil for frying, because of its high smoking point; you may prefer grapeseed or coconut or ghee or something else altogether, but I feel that peanut oil gives the nice clean fry you should be looking for in a latke cooking medium. Obviously, if you are allergic to peanuts, you undoubtedly feel different about this, and that is entirely understandable.
Pour some oil into the pan.
Then pour some more oil in. Get over it. These are latkes we’re making.
Turn the heat to medium and let the oil warm up, testing with a few droplets of water when you think it’s hot enough. It should sizzle, delightfully, signaling that the time is near. Form small patties with your hands and gently lower them into the oil, flipping them as they start to brown. You will note that if the oil is too hot, they’ll burn without cooking through, and if it’s too cold, they will become greasy and oily long before they’re done. You will need to perform a dance with the temperature to keep it at the optimal point. Patience.
I know, it’s hard.
As you finish each batch, use a slotted spatula to gently remove your finished latkes and position them on a paper towel. Or a cloth one, if you’re that sort of person, and if you are, please tell me your secret for removing cooking grease from fabric.
The thing about latkes is that they taste best hot, and thus I prefer latke parties where people take shifts at the stove, ferrying delicious latkes out to the table where hungry guests can fall upon them, dressing them up as they will and then devouring them so they can prepare to salivate with readiness for the next batch. Sure, you could pile them up on a big platter and save them, but why would you do that? The scent of latkes winding through the house will only torment everyone, and on this, the most splendid of nights, a night when latkes are on the menu, no one should live in such sweet agony.