by Lisa Barlow
(NOTE: Hanukkah starts on the Hebrew calendar date of 25 Kislev, and lasts for eight days. THIS YEAR THROUGH 12/1 – 12/9)
What does a nice shiksa girl like me know about latkes? Bupkis! But that doesn’t stop me from gobbling them down whenever they’re on the menu. In New York you can find great latkes year round in delis and Eastern European eateries. During Hanukkah, you can find them in many upscale restaurants where they are gussied up with crème fraiche and caviar, quails' eggs or truffles. You can even find traif versions that feature bacon.
Latkes are served on Hanukkah in celebration of the liberation of Jerusalem in 168 BC, after the Maccabees drove out the Syrian-Greek invaders. When the main temple was recaptured, only enough oil remained to keep the holy lamp burning for one day. Yet it burned for eight days, long enough for the city dwellers to manufacture more oil. Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, has become the eight-day holiday that pays homage to the miracle of the oil. Not only is one candle of a menorah lit each day for eight days, but tradition holds that foods fried in oil, most usually olive oil, be served.
I did learn how to make latkes in cooking school on the same day we learned to make the seductive French potato dish, Pommes Paillasson, in which a whole stick of butter is incorporated into each artery-hardening pancake. It was always a relief to actually cook with a potato instead of chopping a raw one up into little #10-size “brunoise” cubes, our homework every night for months.
In class, we divided ourselves, as usual, into pairs. Because there is a competitive edge to all that is achieved in a professional school kitchen, I thought I had an ace up my sleeve. Minna, a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey, was a latke pro, she said.
Ditching the textbook recipe, she whispered proudly “We’ll make my Bubbe’s instead.” There were other teams where one student’s heritage gave him or her “license to latke” and in each one, you could hear the same self-assured claim “I’ll show you how it’s done.”
Minna, usually an overly meticulous, often panicky chef, whose need to achieve a perfect score on all that she did, kept her in a high energy orbit doing and redoing every step of a recipe. Now, however, she was completely at ease. A handful of matzoh meal, a scoop of flour, some potato…she shaped her latkes and beamed.
When they had been fried and plated. Minna put them along side the other team’s latkes. Even our teacher had made her version, which had probably been learned in the kitchen of her bubbe, who in turn had learned it from hers. What was immediately remarkable is that they all looked completely different. Some were fat and brown. Others were flat and pale yellow with little flecks of parsley. One group had fashioned their gorgeous golden orange latkes out of sweet potatoes. Minna’s, in comparison, sat like drab and crispy scabs on the greasy plate.
It wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that they were among the worst things I’ve ever eaten. Hard, dry little pucks, more gluey flour than potato. But Minna was in Heaven, transported back to a large dining room table in Parsippany, where a whole happy family was celebrating the season by popping Bubbe’s sour cream slathered latkes into their mouths.
“How to make Latkes” was one of the more valuable lessons I learned in school. If I didn’t walk away with a magnificent recipe, I did learn that great food sometimes has more to do with its associations than it does with taste.
Sweet Potato Latkes
2 large sweet potatoes or yams (about 1 lb) peeled and grated.
2or 3 scallions, chopped
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
Pinch of salt and pepper
Olive oil or vegetable oil for frying
• Mix all ingredients.
• Heat oil in a heavy skillet until it is hot, but not smoking.
• Shape latkes with your hands. They should be about 3 or 4 inches in diameter.
• Flatten with a slotted spatula and lower into oil.
• Cook in small batches and drain on paper towels.
• Sprinkle with a little salt and serve.