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For the Love of Latkes: Learn to make this classic dish for the holidays |

For the Love of Latkes: Learn to make this classic dish for the holidays

Latkes. Photo by Wes Frazer. 

Of all Hanukkah foods, potato latkes may be the most common when Americans celebrate the eight-day “festival of light.” Potato latkes are shredded spuds, infused with onion, bound with egg and breadcrumbs, then cooked in oil. Traditional toppings include applesauce or sour cream.

“The latke is probably the most symbolic food and the most paradigmatic food item of Hanukkah itself,” says Douglas Kohn, interim senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham.

It represents both the legend underlying Hanukkah (or Chanukah) as well as the traditions brought by Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, including those who helped build Birmingham. Chartered 11 years after Birmingham was founded, Temple Emanu-El opened the city’s first synagogue in 1889. Knesseth Israel Congregation incorporated in Birmingham that year.

The Hanukkah tradition of serving foods fried in oil commemorates the story of the miracle of the Menorah inside the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

The temple was liberated nearly 2,200 years ago by the Maccabees who overthrew Greek/Syrian occupiers who persecuted and massacred the Jews. The Maccabees found only one container of purified olive oil in the temple, a one-day supply for the sacred Menorah, but the flames kept burning for eight days.

Frying potato-and-onion latkes during Hanukkah may only trace to the mid-1800s, when famine in east Europe left little else for holiday fare. Over the next 70 years, some 2 million Ashkenazi Jews from that area emigrated to the U.S. Their holiday tradition of humble-yet-tasty latkes settled with them.

Latkes generally are described as potato pancakes, but they’re actually more substantial, like fritters. Latkes can feature any shredded vegetable, including sweet potato, zucchini, carrots, and parsnips.

For traditional potato latkes, use starchy spuds like russets, aka Idaho potatoes. Starch helps keep latke patties intact. (Potato starch also is sold commercially.) Using a box shredder is an old-school method, but food processors with shredder attachments make short work of both the potato and onion.

Potatoes turn brown quickly, so it’s best to submerge shreds in a bowl of water while prepping other ingredients. Just before mixing and forming the latkes, carefully pour off the water, leaving behind residual starch to stir into the shreds.

Moisture is the enemy of crisp latkes. Use a cheesecloth or multiple layers of paper towel to ring out as much liquid as possible from drained potatoes and onion before blending with the binding ingredients. When forming patties, squeeze residual liquid into a separate bowl.

Traditionalists use schmaltz–rendered chicken fat–to fry. Olive oil is symbolic, but its flavor may be too strong for some. Canola or vegetable oil is neutral and can take the heat needed to fry latkes.

Latkes should be brown and crisp with soft interiors. Using raw potatoes requires developing a feel for forming proper-sized patties that cook through inside without burning outside.

Well-seasoned cast-iron skillets work best, experts say. Most nonstick pans don’t brown as efficiently. Latkes easily stick and crumble in stainless steel. (Who wants scrambled latke?)

When frying any food, don’t overcrowd the pan. Using two skillets and transferring cooked latkes to a wire rack efficiently produces a family-sized batch of latkes to serve at their crisp peak.

Get creative with toppings–Kosher or not–like beef brisket, braised short ribs, or smoked salmon with Greek yogurt and dill. Fruit sauces and chutneys also pair well. Put out a variety–sweet, creamy, salty, and savory.

Hanukkah’s dates vary because the Jewish calendar uses lunar months. This year (5,778 in the Jewish calendar) the holiday falls on December 12-20.

Whether celebrating Hanukkah or just looking for celebratory food, light up your table with potato latkes.

“People in Birmingham love fried, crispy food,” Kohn says. “The rich smell of potato and onion frying in oil is enticing. Where there are potato latkes, people
are smiling.”

Potato Latkes

  • 5 large russet potatoes (about 2 pounds)
  • 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and halved
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 3/4 cup matzo meal or breadcrumbs
  • Salt and pepper
  • Oil or schmaltz for frying
  1. Peel potatoes. Shred using a box grater or food processor with attachment. Immediately immerse potatoes in a bowl of cold water.
  2. Shred onion.
  3. Begin heating oil on medium heat in one or more skillets, preferably cast iron. Using multiple pans ensures latkes are served hot.
  4. Drain water from potato shreds, preserving starch at the bottom. Mix potatoes and starch, then stir in onions. Using cheesecloth or multiple layers of paper towels, squeeze as much liquid as possible out of the potato/onion mixture and return to the bowl.
  5. Add eggs and meal/breadcrumbs to the potato-and-onion mixture and season generously with salt and pepper. Mix well.
  6. Scoop a palm-full of latke mixture and squeeze residual liquid into a separate bowl. Form a test patty and carefully place in the oil. Cook until brown on the bottom, carefully flip and brown the other side. Place on a wire rack with paper towel underneath, and taste for seasoning. Adjust salt or pepper in the uncooked mixture if necessary.
  7. Repeat process to press and cook remaining latke mixture, being careful not to overcrowd the pan. 
  8. Top with desired sauces or chutneys.

This story appears in Birmingham magazine’s December 2017 issue. Subscribe today!

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