Jane Says: A Latke Party Doesn’t Have to Be a Leaden Affair
“Every year I throw a latke party for Hanukkah. Is there any way I can make them healthier?”
Yes! But first, a little backstory. The potato fritters or pancakes called latkes, served at Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, are closely associated with olive oil, a symbol of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BCE. Judah and the Maccabees had defeated the Syrians, who had desecrated the temple. Olive oil was needed for the temple menorah, which was supposed to burn throughout each night. The Maccabees found only enough undefiled oil to light the menorah once, but it miraculously lasted for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of consecrated oil for it. Talk about energy conservation!
The Maccabees knew from olives, but they wouldn’t have known a potato—or a potato latke—if they’d tripped over it. Potatoes weren’t known to Jewish cooks in the Old World until almost 1,700 years later, after Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of Peru. According to Gil Marks in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, it wasn’t until medieval times in Europe that fried foods, as well as dairy foods, emerged as Hanukkah fare. The first latkes were made of a fresh cheese such as ricotta. “After the Spanish expelled the Jews from Sicily in 1492, the exiles introduced their ricotta cheese pancakes” to the Jews of northern Italy, Marks writes. “Consequently, cheese pancakes, because they combined the two traditional types of foods—fried and dairy—became a natural Hanukkah dish.”
According to Judaism 101, the word is pronounced “lot-kuh” or “lot-key,” depending on where your grandmother comes from, although there do seem to be grounds for the latter pronunciation being an Americanization. I’m just surprised that George and Ira Gershwin (or Fred and Ginger) didn’t manage to shoehorn latkes into “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” along with tomatoes, tomahtoes, potatoes, and potahtoes.
OK, now down to business.
Beyond the Potato
When it comes to latkes, the frying isn’t what troubles many; it’s the spuds. The starch. The carbs. Hold that thought—I’ll address it soon in the new year. For now, I just want to say that you can easily cut the amount of potatoes used with celery root (nice with brisket), for instance, or zucchini, which would be lovely with fish.
And then there is a whole world of latkes that doesn’t involve potatoes. There are cheese latkes, of course, which are tender and creamy—“like a blintz without the crepe,” says Marks. If you’re a fan of ultra-crisp latkes, try these Golden Parsnip Latkes. Martha Rose Shulman’s Spicy Carrot and Spinach Latkes aren’t especially crisp (no one will mind, says Shulman, and she’s right), but they are just as wonderful in their own way. What made them especially memorable for me when I tried them a couple of years ago was the savvy addition of earthy, nutty nigella seeds; if you’ve ever had Armenian string cheese or the Bengali spice blend called panch phoron, you know how curiously addictive nigella seeds are. When you measure the ingredients for these latkes, you may know to tightly pack the chopped spinach, a green that shrinks dramatically when cooked, but be sure to tightly pack the grated carrots as well, as per Shulman’s instructions; they also shrink. With these latkes, by the way, you won’t miss the sour cream; instead, go for chutney or a refreshing yogurt-based raita, which is especially nice if you ramp up the chile powder in the recipe.
One staff favorite at Gourmet was Melissa Roberts’ Sweet Potato Latkes, and there’s no reason why you can’t make them all winter long—they’re guaranteed to elevate the most basic roast chicken supper. A few years ago, I spiked the batter with New Mexican chile powder and a little cumin, and last year, I experimented with frying the (nonspiked) latkes in minimally processed “virgin” coconut oil, which adds an exotic flair. The Curried Sweet Potato Latkes from the now-closed New Prospect Cafe (one of Brooklyn’s pioneering organic restaurants when it opened in 1984) are also delicious. When Joan Nathan published the recipe in Jewish Cooking in America, she suggested that you can add some fresh grated ginger for an Asian twist.
There’s no rule that says latkes have to be the main event. Especially if you’re going for a tried-and-true potato version, downsize the pancakes and serve them as a first course, before a make-ahead main dish, or make them even smaller and serve them as an appetizer, topped with smoked salmon and a dab of creme fraîche. If your goal is a latke bar with a number of different toppings, include a big winter salad on the table—its coolness and crunch will cut the richness—or a simple side such as sautéed broccoli or steamed spinach. For dessert, all you really need are poached pears or a pretty bowl of satsumas or clementines—perfect with that box of rugelach some kind soul brought you.
A Few Cooking Tips
For the thinnest, crispest latkes, wring the liquid out of the grated vegetable you’re using by wrapping it in a clean kitchen towel (not terry cloth) and squeezing as tightly as possible.
If you’re using potatoes, the starchier they are, the crisper the end result. Russet (baking) potatoes have the highest starch content. Yukon Golds have medium starch, and boiling potatoes have the least.
Another key to crispness is to flatten each measure of batter with the back of a wooden spoon after you (carefully) drop it into the hot oil.
Jayne Cohen notes in Jewish Holiday Cooking that olive oil has a lower smoke point than (non-G.M.) canola, say, and thus requires greater vigilance in regulating the heat. “For batters that are naturally wetter or more fragile,” she writes, “choose an oil with a high smoke point.” One of my favorite oils for frying any kind of fritter is grapeseed.
To prevent greasy, soggy latkes, Cohen also points out that the batter should be at room temperature. “Cold batter will lower the oil temperature, causing the latkes to absorb too much oil. (Exceptions: cheese latkes, which may fall apart if not very cold.)” Overcrowding the pan also lowers the temperature.