The Key to Making Perfect Latkes
Simplicity is the secret.
When it comes to latkes, I am something of a purist, or at least a minimalist. Personally, I don’t believe that you should include any more ingredients than are necessary, so no cinnamon, no sweet potatoes, no turnips, no parsnips, no zucchini, no panko, no cheese—no nothing, except, of course, potatoes, onion, eggs, flour, salt, pepper, vegetable oil (for frying) and maybe some parsley.
If you like adding more than just those ingredients, I’m certainly not here to cast judgement on you. I would never look askance at your tastes. But because Jewish holidays are about tradition, and because my mother’s latkes were—and still are—quite simple but no less delicious for it, I remain steadfast in my view. The recipe my mother uses as a guidepost—and that I now use—comes, in fact, from a charming children’s book called Latkes, Latkes Good to Eat, by Naomi Howland.
It’s straightforward. You grate a bunch of peeled and rinsed potatoes and then, in a colander, squeeze out the liquid as best as you can. (You can use a food processor, but I feel as if it is better and more appropriately old-fashioned to grate the potatoes by hand.) Mix the grated potatoes into a bowl with some chopped onions, eggs, flour, salt, pepper and parsley. Heat up some oil in a pan, spoon out some of the latke mix and plop it in.
The crucial moment is when you decide to take the latkes out of the pan. Personally, I believe that you should get the most out of your oil because this is Hanukkah, after all, the holiday in which oil is celebrated as a kind of life force. So I like to leave the latkes in for as long as possible, right at the point at which they are about to burn and have a dark brown hue. This way, they come out crispy, and you don’t run the risk of serving your guests soggy latkes. There are few things worse, as far as I am concerned, than a latke that isn’t cooked through in the middle.
For whatever reason, I have never regarded latkes and potato pancakes as the same thing, from a culinary as well as a linguistic perspective. Potato pancakes, to my mind, are the equivalent of fried hash browns. They can be great. But they are usually only slightly browned and do not summon thoughts of Hanukkah. These are more commonly served on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New year—at least among those I celebrate with. You might eat a potato pancake with a fork.
Latkes, on the other hand, are what you eat on Hanukkah, and never any other time of year. They are preferably small and can be eaten by hand, dipped into sour cream, yogurt or applesauce. They are delightful, and crunchy, and above all else—uncomplicated.