Deconstructing the latke: A user’s guide


Latkes, doughnuts and fritters — in Jewish homes, everyone’s frying this month, much as we have been for the last 2,000 years or so. Frankly, you’ve got to love a religion that actually encourages you to eat deep-fried foods — especially with sour cream!

All Jewish festivals have a culinary dimension, and Hanukkah (which this year begins at sundown Dec. 16) is no exception. In fact, it’s at the very heart of the event, although it’s the oil that is the important thing. In other words, the frying rather than the fried. Jewish traditions encompass both the sweet and savory, but the Ashkenazi latke is arguably in pole position in the Hanukkah festival food repertoire.

Let me be clear. I am talking dirty. I am not dealing here with “latkes-lite,” baked in the oven rather than fried in the pan. To my mind, the former has lost sight of its meaning and origin in the story of the Maccabees and the miracle of the menorah in the temple. It’s also lost a lot of its taste.

Back in the day, in the Jewish shtetls of Eastern Europe, the run-up to Hanukkah was also the time for fattening poultry — “Hanukkah is coming and the geese are getting fat” — as the old Hyman family saying went. Cooking oil was hard to obtain, and the main source of kosher solid fat for meat cookery came from chickens, ducks and geese. Schmaltz is still a delicious substitute in which to fry your latkes instead of oil, although the health police would say it’s like choosing between a heart attack and, er, a heart attack.

Potatoes, an essential latke ingredient

It should also be remembered that potatoes — that other essential component of the latke — didn’t arrive in Europe until the 16th century, and were not widely cultivated throughout Russia, Poland, Lithuania and the Ukraine until the early to mid-19th century. Once they became a staple, however, Hanukkah in the shtetls was never the same. Potatoes and goose fat were an obvious combination to create a pancake that was quickly fried — and just as quickly consumed. Indeed, the potato latke was probably directly responsible for generations of generous Jewish hips.

Quantity is all very well. Indeed, it is a hallowed Jewish tradition, but we’ve become a little more discriminating since potato first met oil. The designer latke is everywhere. Theoretically, and indeed gastronomically, there is nothing wrong in this. As the essence of the festival is in the oil and the frying, latkes can be made with any vegetable from beetroot to zucchini. However, for traditionalists, the potato will always be at the heart of things. Speaking personally, a latke without the potato is like fancy without the schmancy.

Making latkes is a serious business, responsible for blood, sweat and tears in probably equal proportions. In order to be prepared for the ordeal ahead, I offer this simple (hah!) guide. Study, take Prozac and GO FRY.


Getting ready to make latkes. Photos by Clarissa Hyman

Deconstructing the latke

Variety

You have to have the right potato. They should be floury not waxy.

Peeling or skin on?

This is where the trouble starts. Some leave the skin on, unless the potatoes are particularly coarse. Most insist peeled are best.

Soaking

There are two routes to go: whole-soak or shredded-soak.

With the first, you peel and soak the whole potatoes in cold water for between 30 minutes and 24 hours.

With the second, you grate the potatoes and soak in cold water for at least half an hour, rinsing in a few changes of clean, cold water. Some use lightly salted water for soaking.

Most authorities agree that if you are not going to soak, grating should be done only about 15 minutes before cooking or the potatoes will turn brown.

Grating vs. shredding

In other words, short, stubby bits vs. long, thin bits. Or fine grate vs. coarse grate.

If you go for a fine grate, you have to make sure it does not become a gluey pulp.

One technique is to coarsely shred the potato and onion (we’ll come to the latter, shortly) in a processor, then pulse briefly before adding the eggs (we’ll come to those later as well).

Hand grater vs. processor

In many homes, men were traditionally given the job of grating, while the women hovered over the frying pan — but gender role appropriation aside, the big question is, do you grate by hand or with a food processor.

Some swear that only grating by hand gives the right chunky texture; they also swear a lot when the blood from their knuckles flavors the latke mix.

If using a processor, the issue is the grating disc vs. pulsing. It depends whether you want a crunchy latke or one with a smoother consistency.

One writer uses the medium shredding blade and lays the potatoes horizontally in the feed tube to maximize the length of the strands.

Another of my acquaintances uses the processor to separately grate the potato and onion. She then combines half the potato in the processor with the onion, egg, bindings and seasoning and whirls to combine. She then mixes in the rest of the shredded potatoes.

Onion

To use or not to use, that is the question. This is a subject that can be cited as grounds for divorce.

Some onion users grate it together with the potato, others separately. Some say the onion juice helps the potatoes to stop turning brown.

Some do not grate the onion but cut it into small chunks.

Some finely chop the onion by hand.

Some alternately grate some of the onions on the large holes of the grater and some of the potatoes on the smallest holes.

Some of us start to cry.


Making latkes for Hanukkah.

Straining

We are now getting into advanced territory.

Once the potatoes and onion are ready, then everyone agrees they must be strained but should they be strained separately or together? Does it matter?

And what do you strain them in?

One writer places the potatoes in a colander, sprinkles them with salt, adds a layer of paper towels and tops with a heavy object.

Another lines a bowl with cheesecloth rather than using a colander. She holds this briefly under running water and squeezes it again thoroughly to remove excess moisture.

Many wring the grated potatoes and onions in a tea towel.

One poor soul cuts both the potatoes and onions into small dice, which she then grinds and drains. After adding eggs, seasoning and flour, she then drains again.

A subsection to this stage concerns the starch from the drained potato. You can collect the starch by straining the potato over a bowl, then pour off the liquid, leaving behind the potato starch/sediment. Do you use it or not?

Some swear by it. Others say it makes the latke go soggy. The Vilna Gaon does not pronounce on the issue.

Proportions

Good cooking, as everyone knows, is about balance, which is always difficult in high heels.

Everyone has their own secret formula although one pound of potatoes to one large onion to two large beaten eggs works pretty well. One daring soul has been known to add an extra egg yolk.

Binding

This does not mean tying yourself to the kitchen table. It is a serious issue. One must debate the different merits of matzo meal vs. flour or a half-and-half mixture of both. Plain vs. self-rising flour? And if so, how much?

One authority makes his batter firm enough to scoop up with his hands, so he can pat it into a pancake leaving a few straggly strands along the edge. For others, this is simply too solid a mix.

A minority caucus votes for potato flour: This has the merit of making the latkes more compact, firmer and easier to handle but, honestly, they are just not as lovely to eat.

Other ingredients

Salt and pepper seems straightforward but my mother always insisted on white pepper, and who am I to disagree?

Lemon juice, sugar and caraway seeds have also made an appearance in the kitchens of those who should know better.

Size

Now we’re really getting to the heavy stuff (perhaps that’s not the right word).

How large should a latke be? One or two tablespoon size? Do you flatten with the back of the spoon or a spatula?

Should they be thin or thick, what should be the surface to interior ratio, what about the crispy/creamy ratio?

Generally, the flatter they are, the crispier they will be — although if that’s how you like them, you probably live with someone who prefers thicker ones with a soft interior.


Fried latkes

Oil

It should be olive oil, although not necessarily your best extra virgin. Many people, however, use vegetable oil.

More complicated is the question of whether to deep or shallow fry. If the latter, how deep should the oil be in the pan? Half an inch? Or should the oil just “film” the bottom? Should you use a nonstick pan? Are you losing the will to live?

Temperature

This is crucial. If the temperature of the oil is not hot enough, the latkes go very greasy and stodgy. If the oil is too hot, then the outside burns before the inside is cooked.

Good hints: Preheat the empty pan before adding the oil; bring the raw mixture to room temperature before cooking; listen for the sizzle when the latkes hit the pan; don’t crowd the pan, or they become soggy.

Freezing

Freezing is possible, although purists insist they do lose a little je ne sais quoi. Frozen latkes should be fried from frozen or reheated in a hot oven on a wire rack to allow the hot air to circulate around the entire surface.

The X factor or the returnability factor

Ancient animosities aside, as all latkologists know, the test of a good latke is the returnability factor — are they so good you would return for more?

Conclusion

One batch is never enough. It takes several attempts to get it right — and apart from anything else, you have to keep testing the batch to see if it is up to standard.

But, at the end of the day, how can you ever judge a latke? It’s not just a question of shape, color, texture and taste but of emotional resonance, psychic energy, Jungian dreams and tribal loyalties. Not to mention hunger. Perhaps it’s simply a small miracle — which is why we’re frying now.


Zester Daily contributor Clarissa Hyman is an award-winning food and travel writer. She is twice winner of the prestigious Glenfiddich award among others. A former television producer, she now contributes to a wide range of publications and has written four books: “Cucina Siciliana,” “The Jewish Kitchen,” “The Spanish Kitchen” and “Oranges: A Global History.” She is based in Manchester, England, and is the vice president of the UK Guild of Food Writers.

Oh, it’s (latke) frying time again—but it doesn’t have to be


Gone are the days when the Chanukah holiday meant an eight-day binge fest of all things fried.

The Festival of Lights, which commemorates the Maccabean revolt against the Greeks, has a longstanding tradition of oily foods such as latkes and donuts in remembrance of the miracle of the temple oil, which lasted eight days instead of the expected one. But for some, the holiday has become an excuse to inhale fried potato pancakes and custard-filled pastry.

“People have a misconception of the tradition to fry on Chanukah,” Yosef Silver, the author of the popular blog This American Bite, told JTA. “The concept is to remember the oil, but that doesn’t necessarily mean frying. We’ve gotten so wrapped up with frying, but there are ways to make Chanukah food, like latkes, just using oil.”

These days, with everyone from the first lady on down drawing attention to our widening waistlines, Jewish foodies have plenty of options for consuming traditional holiday fare without packing on the pounds.

Silver was raised on the old way — frying everything. But now he prefers to bake latkes rather than fry them.

“If you prefer to use the traditional potato latke recipe, the best way to make it healthy would be to pan fry it with an oil substitute like Pam,” Silver said. “If you want to incorporate oil, add only a tablespoon and lightly pan-fry it.”

For those who prefer a fried taste, Silver suggests swapping potatoes for healthier vegetables that provide vitamins and nutrition as opposed to starch. 

“My favorite latke variety to make is my variation using rutabaga and turnip,” Silver said. “Rutabaga is a starchy vegetable, but it’s not actually a carb. It gives a similar consistency to potatoes and is delicious.”  

Shaya Klechevsky, a personal chef from Brooklyn who writes the kosher cuisine blog At Your Palate, says there are ways to make healthier donuts, or sufganiyot — also a traditional Chanukah food though one generally more popular in Israel than the United States. But Klechevsky warns about playing too much with recipes. 

“When making the batter, you can use a little bit of whole wheat if you want to veer away from white flour, but you need to be careful because too much whole wheat will turn your donuts into bricks,” Klechevsky said. “You can also substitute sugar with honey.”

Rather than altering the recipe for the dough, Klechevsky says the best way to make healthy donuts is to use healthy fillings, like sugar-free jams, nuts, fruit and granola.

“The best option is to bake donuts rather than fry them,” Klechevsky said. “The taste won't be the same, but it will be close. You can buy little round molds and fill them with batter.”

Erica Lokshin, a wellness dietitian at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, points out that baked donuts have half the calories and one-third the fat of fried.

“Chanukah foods loaded in oil are high in cholesterol, which can be really bad for your heart, and eating them for eight says straight increases risks,” Lokshin said.

Lokshin says that when serving toppings to go with latkes, reduced-fat sour cream and unsweeted applesauce are the best options. And since no one wants to feel deprived around the holidays, she suggests picking one night to indulge.

“It’s better to designate which night of the holiday you will enjoy latkes and donuts, and stick to your regular eating routine on the other nights,” Lokshin said. “Otherwise, you’re picking at a donut here and a latke there, and over an eight-day period you will probably consume more than you hoped you had and it will throw off your eating routine in the long run.

Below are a couple of healthier latkes recipes.

ROASTED GINGERED CARROT LATKES
(Shaya Klechevsky)

Ingredients:
6 cups coarsely grated peeled carrots
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons whole wheat flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
7 teaspoons finely grated peeled fresh ginger
3 large eggs, beaten to blend
Blended olive oil (for frying)

Preparation:
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil and spray with olive oil, or take a pastry brush dipped in olive oil and lightly coat the foil. Place grated carrots in a large bowl; press with paper towels to absorb any moisture. In another bowl, combine flours, salt, baking powder and pepper, and blend together. Add carrots, ginger and eggs to the flour mixture and combine. Mixture shouldn’t be too wet or too dry. When forming patties, the mixture should stick to itself and not come apart. If it’s too wet, add a little bit more flour; if it’s too dry, add more beaten egg. Allow to stand for 10-12 minutes for ingredients to absorb into each other. Place patties, about 3 1/2-inch rounds, onto the greased baking sheet. Leave a little room around each one. Place tray into middle rack of oven and roast for 10-12 minutes per side, or until golden brown.

Makes about 15 latkes.


RUTABAGA AND TURNIP LATKE
(Yosef Silver)

Ingredients:
2 rutabaga, shredded
2 turnips, shredded
1 large onion, shredded
1 egg, plus one egg white
1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper

Preparation:
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Mix all the ingredients, then shape the latkes so they are approximately the size of your palm and about 1/4-inch thick. Grease a cookie sheet with olive oil if you want to keep with tradition, or substitute coconut oil for a lighter alternative. Place the latkes on the cookie sheet with space between them. Once the oven has heated, bake the latkes until golden brown.

Latkes and farinata: Something familiar, something new


These days, my family has spread out, but as always, we will all be coming together for Chanukah, because no one wants to miss the Chanukah reunion dinner, our favorite family get-together.

It is a time to catch up on family gossip and enjoy each other’s company, a time to sit around the table and reminisce about the past, light the Chanukah candles, eat and open the holiday presents.

When everyone arrives, we serve my special potato latkes, fried at the last minute and served hot and crispy, topped with applesauce or sugar. In addition, we always include something new. Last year it was corn blinis with salmon caviar. This Chanukah I have a new recipe that is a specialty of Liguria, Italy: Farinata, a thin chickpea pancake usually cooked in a wood-burning oven. Similar to a pizza, it can be served topped with roasted vegetables or soft cheese and can also be eaten plain, right out of the oven. Crisp and golden on the top, soft and moist on the inside, glistening with the fragrant olive oil it is fried in, Farinata is a finger-lickin’ food that nourishes the soul.

The main course will be a family favorite: my mother’s recipe for roast chicken baked in a tomato-wine sauce with lots of fresh vegetables and mushrooms from the farmer’s market. Perfect, because it can be made several days in advance and is easy to reheat and serve. I serve the chicken with green tomato marmalade, a wonderful recipe I discovered while taking a cooking class on one of our previous Italian trips. I make a large quantity of the marmalade using unripe green tomatoes available at this time of the year, fill jars and store them in the refrigerator. If there is leftover sauce from the roast chicken, I use it with pasta the next night.

Several years ago, I asked Michel Richard, when he was the chef at Citrus Restaurant in Los Angeles, if there was a way to serve chocolate ice cream without using dairy products. He said, “Why Judy, of course.” The next day he served me the most delicious bittersweet nondairy chocolate sorbet I have ever tasted. This is a perfect dessert for a nondairy meal. In addition, I have asked each family to bring a tray of their favorite homemade cookies to accompany this delicious chocolate dessert.

Judy’s Crispy Potato Latkes

This latke recipe was chosen as one of the top 10 recipes of 1998 by the Los Angeles Times.

4 baking potatoes, peeled
1 large yellow onion, peeled and grated
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
4 extra-large eggs
3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Olive oil, for frying

Grate the potatoes, using a food processor or fine shredder. Immediately transfer potatoes to a large bowl and add the onion, lemon juice, eggs, flour, salt and pepper. Mix well.

Heat 1/8 inch of olive oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Pour the batter into the hot oil with a large spoon and flatten with the back of the spoon to make 4-inch latkes. Cook on one side until golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes; then turn and cook on the other side, about 2 minutes. (Turn once only.) Drain well on paper towels and serve immediately, plain or with topping.

Makes about a dozen latkes, or four servings.

Farinata (Chickpea Pancake)

In Liguria, which flanks Genoa along Italy’s northwest coast, the regional comfort food is Farinata. A deceptively simple street food, Farinata resembles a large, thin crepe or pancake and is traditionally cooked in a wood-burning oven.

Crisp and golden on the top, soft and moist on the inside, Farainata can be stuffed or garnished with any vegetable, cheese, or sauce, or it can be eaten plain. In some places minced onions or rosemary are sprinkled on top before it is baked.

2/3 cup chickpea flour
1/3 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup water
6 tablespoons olive oil
1⁄2 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary
1/4 cup chopped tomato
1/4 cup chopped onions
1 tablespoon capers, (optional)
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Sift the chickpea flour with the salt into a medium bowl. Slowly add 1⁄4 cup of the water, whisking constantly to form a paste. Beat with a wooden spoon until smooth. Whisk in remaining 1/2 cup of the water and let the batter stand at room temperature for 30 minutes, then stir in the rosemary.

Preheat the broiler.

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a 12-inch nonstick ovenproof skillet. Stir the batter once, pour it into the skillet and drizzle 2 tablespoons of olive oil on top. Cook the pancake over moderately high heat until the bottom is golden and crisp and the top is almost set, 2 to 3 minutes. Burst any large air bubbles with the tip of a knife.

Sprinkle the rosemary, tomato, onion, capers (if using), Parmesan and pepper over the top, then place the skillet under the broiler and cook until the pancake is golden and crisp, 3 to 4 minutes. Slide onto a wooden board, cut into wedges and serve immediately. Repeat with the remaining batter.
Makes 2 Farinatas.
Note: Chickpea flour is sold in Italian specialty shops and health food stores.

Grandma Molly’s Roast Chicken With Mushrooms and Whole Garlic Cloves

1⁄2 cup olive oil
2 onions, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 celery ribs, thinly sliced
1 (15-ounce) can peeled tomatoes with juice, diced
1 cup dry white wine
2 (3-pound) chickens, cut into pieces
12 medium mushrooms, quartered
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1 head garlic, cloves separated, unpeeled
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
6 sprigs of fresh rosemary or 2 tablespoons dried rosemary

Preheat the oven to 375 F.

In a large roaster, heat the olive oil and sauté the onions, minced garlic, carrots and celery, until tender. Add the tomatoes with juice and wine. Bring to a boil and simmer a few minutes. Arrange the chicken pieces, whole garlic cloves and mushrooms into the sauce and baste to coat the chicken. Add salt and pepper to taste, simmer for 5 minutes.

Place the fresh rosemary sprigs on top, cover and roast for 1 hour or until the chicken is tender.

To serve, spoon the sauce onto individual heated serving plates, place the chicken pieces on top with the mushrooms and vegetables and be sure to put an unpeeled garlic clove on top of each serving.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Chef Klaus’ Green Tomato Marmalade (Marmellata di Pomodori Verdi)

2 cups sugar
2 cups water
8 cups (2 pounds) green (under-ripe) tomatoes, diced (about 4 large tomatoes)
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice, heated
Grated zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
10-15 mint leaves, sliced (optional)

In a large, heavy skillet combine the sugar and water and bring to a boil, mixing constantly, until the sugar dissolves. Reduce the heat and simmer until the sugar begins to turn golden. Add the tomatoes, orange juice and zest, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until the tomatoes are soft and the liquid has reduced to a thick syrup, about 20 minutes. Mix in the mint leaves, if using.

Cool.

Makes about 3 to 4 cups.

Michel Richard’s Nondairy Chocolate Sorbet

3 cups unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cups sugar
4 cups water
1 1⁄2 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted
1 cup port or cranberry juice

In a large, heavy saucepan, mix the cocoa and sugar together. Add water a little at a time in thin stream, mixing with wire whisk until well blended and smooth. Bring to boil for 5 to 10 minutes, until thick. (Straining is optional.)
Add chocolate and port, bring to a boil, then simmer until thick. Pour into an 8-cup pitcher or bowl and then place in a larger bowl filled with ice and water, stirring until cool. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Process in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer sorbet to a covered container and freeze at least 2 hours to mellow. If frozen solid, soften in refrigerator or at room temperature until creamy.

Makes 1 1⁄2 to 2 quarts.

Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” (Morrow, 1988) and “The International Deli Cookbook (Chronicle, 1994). “Judy’s Kitchen” appears on Jewish Life Television. Her Web site is www.judyzeidler.com.

The secret of potato latkes


Excerpted from “Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family” (Workman, 2007).

Chanukah(Hebrew for “dedication”) is all about the oil. In 165 B.C.E., against great odds, Judah Maccabee and his tiny band of soldiers defeated Antiochus and the Syrian-Greek army. Wishing to rededicate the Temple, they found only enough oil to last one day. As every Jewish school child knows, that tiny flask of oil miraculously lasted eight days. But who knew it would set off a frying frenzy that would last for centuries!

Jews of Eastern European descent (Ashkenazim) commemorate the holiday with latkes. But who says potato pancakes are the only fritters fit to fry? Israelis celebrate Chanukah with sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), and every Jewish community the world over sets oil to bubbling to fry a traditional pastry.

Another lesser-known Chanukah tradition involves the story from the apocrypha of Judith, a beautiful Jewish widow, who was asked to dine with the enemy general Holofernes. She plied him with cheese to make him thirsty for wine, and when he fell into a drunken stupor, she beheaded him with his own sword. Because her bravery is said to have inspired the Maccabees, some communities remember Judith by eating cheese during this holiday.

Lighting the candles, I am transported to the Chanukahs of my youth. For the Rabinowitz cousins, raised together practically as siblings, our childhood was the New York version of the movie, “Avalon” (without the fire, thankfully). Our parents were so close, we were always together: cousins Carole and Phyllis, Joyce and Marvin, Bonnie and Jackie, my brother, Gary and I, and of course cousin Marilyn, who luxuriated for nine years as the only grandchild before the rest of us appeared. Ellen and Leslie, Ronald and Linda, our Atlanta cousins, made occasional appearances to round out the festivities. Uncle Al, in his gold slippers and yachting cap, would regale us wide-eyed kids about his submarine, and the identical twins, Uncle Morris from Atlanta and Uncle Lou from New York, would exchange their jackets, scaring their daughters, who suddenly saw two daddies. There were so many of us that Papa Harry even put a board in the children's table. The highlight, of course, was our Chanukah party. The pile of latkes! The mountain of presents! The noise! The excitement! The squabbles! Then when we cousins started producing the great-grandchildren, Aunt Sally's basement bulged with four generations of Rabinowitzes, each bringing gifts for all the others.

I have noticed through the years that there is a tendency among latke illuminati to view with disdain those who blend. “Oh, no,” they tsk-tsk when they see my recipe, just a touch of feigned sympathy in their eyes. “I use a food processor. I like texture.” Texture? You want texture? I'll give you texture. Use my splat! method and you'll get all the texture you want with these crunchy babies.

They're all crispy outsides, with practically no insides. My family hovers over the pan to fight over the thinnest ones, which are so full of holes you can practically see through them. Cathy Thomas, food editor of The Orange County Register, called them “crunchy wonders” and “crispy-brown snowflakes” … but I don't like to brag.

Judy Bart Kancigor's Crispy, Crunchy Latkes

2 pounds baking potatoes
2 large eggs
1/2 medium-size onion, coarsely chopped
1/2 medium-size firm apple, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher (coarse) salt, or to taste
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon baking powder (see Notes)
1/4 to 1/2 cup all-purpose flour or matzah meal
Peanut or canola oil, for frying
Applesauce and/or sour cream, for serving

1. Peel the potatoes and cut them into 1-inch cubes. To keep them white and release some of the starch, submerge them in a bowl of water while you're preparing the remaining ingredients.

2. Place the eggs in a blender. Add the onion, apple, salt, white pepper and baking powder. Drain the potatoes and squeeze them dry in paper towels. Add enough of the potatoes to fill the blender (all 2 pounds may not fit). Turn on the blender, and pushing down on the sides with a rubber spatula (careful you don't blend the spatula — there is no rubber in this recipe), blend until the potatoes just move around. Add the remaining potatoes as you're blending, but do not overprocess or make it too smooth. The texture should resemble applesauce. (This takes about 6 seconds in my Osterizer.)

3. Transfer the batter to a large bowl and add the flour. The batter should be flowing, but not too thin.

4. Now for the real secret of my very crisp latkes: Pour enough oil into a large skillet to coat the bottom. Heat the oil over medium-high heat until it is quite hot but not smoking. Use a serving spoon to scoop up the batter (about 2 tablespoons per scoop), hold the spoon about 8 inches above the pan, and spill it all at once. Splat! Remove your hand quickly so you don't burn yourself.

(Like tennis, it's all in the wrist.) The batter will splatter, forming holes … the better to hold the sour cream or applesauce. Repeat with as many as will fit in the skillet without crowding. Cook until browned, about 1 minute. Then flip them over and cook the other side for 1 minute.

5. Drain the latkes well on paper towels, and keep them warm while you cook the remainder, adding more oil as needed.

6. Serve immediately, with applesauce and/or sour cream.

Notes: If you want to make the batter ahead, to cook later or the next day, prepare it through Step 2 (do not add the flour), and pour the mixture into a tight-fitting glass jar (do not use plastic ware). Tap the jar on the counter to release any air bubbles, cover the batter well with a thick layer of flour, and refrigerate for up to 24 hours. When you are ready to use it, remove and discard the flour with the black layer that has formed beneath it. Transfer the batter to a large bowl, stir in the flour, and proceed with Step 4 using fresh flour.

Makes about 3 dozen latkes.

Chanukah menu dishes up a travelogue of treats


Just back from Italy, I was inspired by the foods served at our favorite restaurants. My Chanukah menu this year is a travelogue of those culinary experiences.

We devote Chanukah to our children and grandchildren, and many of the dishes are easy to prepare and perfect for the whole family. In addition to the traditional potato latkes, I have included two special treats to begin our Chanukah celebration.

We discovered baked homemade potato chips at Restaurante dal Pescatore, a three-star Michelin restaurant in the Po Valley. Created by chef Nadia Santini, she calls them Tuiles of Potatoes and Rosemary. After dinner, when the guests had left and I complemented her on the paper-thin delicacies, she gave me a lesson on how to prepare them.

Along with the potato latkes and Nadia’s Tuiles, another fried treat sure to become part of our Chanukah tradition is Gnoccho Fritto, small squares of pizza dough deep fried in olive oil.

We were first introduced to them at our favorite seafood restaurant located in Varigoti. We have been known to travel several hours just to eat at Muraglia Conca Di Oro on the coast just north of Genova. It has been their custom, when diners arrive, to serve them hot Gnoccho Fritto, along with a glass of sparkling wine.

This incredible restaurant is strictly a family affair. As dad Enzo is in the dining room grilling fish, one of his daughters greets guests and waits tables with his sister, while his wife, Emma, and his other daughter are cooking in the kitchen.

Our family loves chopped chicken liver, but my new presentation will be a surprise. We visited Modena during the annual festival celebrating balsamic vinegar, Balsamico Gusto.

That evening we were guests at a special dinner in Villa Cavazza, where every dish served included balsamic vinegar. The dinner was prepared by French chef Michel Troisgros and Italian chef Massimo Bottura, chef-owner of Ristorante Francescana in Modena.

Bottura, one of the cutting-edge chefs in Italy, served a dish that was fun, as well as delicious. It consisted of chopped liver coated with roasted hazelnuts, served on a stick in the shape of an ice cream bar and garnished with balsamic vinegar. I am sure my family is going to enjoy this dish, especially the grandchildren, because it is picked up by hand and eaten off the stick.

In Naples, we returned to another of our favorite restaurants, L’Europeo di Mattozzi. A traditional Neapolitan restaurant, the owner, Enzo Mattozzi, knows all his customers by name. His pizza is the best in Italy, but the dish that won us over was Baked Eggplant in a rich Onion-Tomato Sauce.

Most of the dishes are served family-style, so when we finished the first large platter of eggplant, we couldn’t help but order another. We had to try it again just to see if it was as delicious as we thought — and it was. When preparing a dairy menu, add fresh mozzarella cheese for an added taste adventure.

Dessert features a traditional pastry made in the Puglia region, called Cartellate (Italian Wine Cookies). Since fried foods are eaten during Chanukah, commemorating the miracle of the one day’s supply of oil that burned for eight days, these pastries are perfect. The dough is rolled out like pasta, cut into thin strips, then each strip is twisted into a lacy round, deep fried in olive oil and drizzled with a wine-honey syrup and nuts. It is crunchy and delicious.

Nadia’s Tuiles of Potatoes and Rosemary
1 small Idaho potato
1 tablespoon nondairy margarine
2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onions
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup cold water
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil

Peel and dice potato, place in water to cover, bring to a boil and simmer until soft. Transfer to a shallow bowl and mash until smooth. Set aside.

In a skillet, heat margarine and saute onions and mix with a wooden spoon until soft. Add rosemary and continue cooking for two minutes. Add three tablespoons of mashed potato and mix well. Set aside.

In a large bowl, using a wooden spoon, add the flour, water, salt, olive oil and mix to combine. Add the potato mixture and mix well. Mixture should have an elastic consistency.

Preheat the oven to 325 F. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat pad or aluminum foil and brush with olive oil. Using a tablespoon, place a small amount of the potato mixture on the prepared baking sheet and spread into a paper-thin oval shape. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown. They crisp up as they cool. Continue with remaining potato mixture.

Makes about three or four dozen.

Gnocco Fritto (Fried Dumplings)
2 packages active dry yeast
Pinch of sugar
1 1/4 cups warm water (110 to 115 degrees)
1/4 cup olive oil
3 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
Olive oil for frying
Salt for dusting

Dissolve the yeast with the sugar in 1/2 cup of a cup of water. Set aside until foamy.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the remaining three-quarters of a cup water, the olive oil and yeast mixture. Stir in the flour and salt and stir in one cup at a time, until the dough begins to come together into a rough ball.

Spoon onto a floured board and knead until smooth and elastic. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, brush top of the dough with oil, cover and set in a warm place to rise for about one hour, until doubled in bulk (or can be used immediately).

In a deep pot, heat four inches of olive oil to 350 degrees. Divide dough into four parts, and with a rolling pin, roll out one part to a rectangle about one-eighth-inch thick. With a pizza wheel, cut the dough into one-inch squares. Repeat with remaining dough.

Holiday Food Fight: Potato vs. Pastry


“The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate” edited by Ruth Fredman Cernea (University of Chicago Press, $18).

As if we didn’t have enough on our plates, here’s something new to argue about. Not that Jews don’t have a fine history of conflict: Hillel vs. Shammai, Bundists vs. Zionists, Labor vs. Likud. But now, to have to pick between sweet and savory, round and triangular, latke and hamantashen. How to choose?

Of course, Purim (hamantashen) and Chanukah(latke) are new holidays, Johnny-come-latelies that turned up after the Bible, so of course they have to fight. You don’t see smack-downs between matzah (Passover) and challah (Sabbath), do you? (Actually, you already know who would win. There’s a reason that Pesach only lasts eight days.) No, the old guys are established. They have their turf. It’s the arrivistes who have to put on the big show.

Thank goodness one of our great universities — Chicago, no less — is on the case. For close to 60 years, it has staged an annual latke-hamantashen debate. Big names (such names! Nobel laureates, New York Times best-seller-list writers, presidents from only the top schools) use their fancy-schmancy degrees and expertise to argue about which food is better. They have some learning, let me tell you, and they show it. Apparently a few of them wear costumes, and those who don’t wear their doctoral robes. (Philosopher Martha Nussbaum once declaimed her argument in Grecian dress.) This is one dignified occasion.

You’d think that after almost six decades, there would be a clear winner. But the more than 50 entries in this anthology just argue one another to a standstill. Not that they don’t try. Alan Gewirth shoots the moon with a complicated semantic analysis proving superiority of the latke, while Lawrence Sherman shows the importance of the hamantashen in Shakespeare. Did you know that the latke was central to the Renaissance? It was. Did you know that the lyrics to a famous and popular song really should read, “Tears on my Hillel?” They should. You can only imagine the advances that the Superconducting Super Hamalatkatron will bring to science. (It harnesses the strongest force known to man: guilt.)

So the old saying, “Two Jews, three opinions” still holds. In this book, one feminist argues that women should embrace the latke as the epitome of their struggle, while another shows how the potato pancake is the symbol of women’s oppression: It has banished them to the kitchen while the others — all men, of course — eat.

And some of the contributors make things even worse by throwing in some ringers: Darwin and his voyage on the “Bagel,” the discovery of the mysterious Shroud of Purim. There is even an entry that proves (conclusively, in this reviewer’s opinion) that the herring is truly the essential Jewish food.

So, is this book funny? Of course it’s funny, even laugh-out-loud funny. It’s Mickey Katz in academic drag, Borscht Belt with a Ph.D.: “‘When I want your opinion,’ as the great Jewish thinker Sam Goldwyn remarked, ‘I will give it to you.’ This is known as the Socratic method.”

Ted Cohen, who now presides over this affair as the emcee, shows why he is an eminent philosopher:

In every possible world, there is a latke. How do we know this? By discovering that it is impossible to imagine a world in which there is no latke. Try it.

First imagine a world. Put in everything you need for a world; this is to be a whole world, not a fragment.

Now add in a latke.

Now take that latke out. It cannot be done, can it…?

Consider, “The schlemiel has said in his heart there are no latkes.”

The schlemiel can say this, but he cannot think it, for it makes no sense.

What sense is there in a nonexistent latke? How can the perfectly edible be absolutely inedible? It makes no sense.

Similarly, French deconstructionist Francoise Meltzer writes with characteristic simplicity:

“How, in short, can it be that the latke and the hamantash are mere orts about to merge in triumphant sublation which will neutralize the apparent dialectic? …[T]he answer is that the sublation of the two forms is always already present in the existence of what we (significantly) refer to as — the croissant.”

You see what she means. Other participants — and here the social scientists really shine — use the arcane methods of their disciplines to isolate, demystify, recalibrate and interrogate the very meaning of our collective, nay, communal lives that the latke and the hamantashen do so much to affirm and, yet, to undermine.

But seriously, folks. Most of the humor here is in-crowd stuff, college professors poking fun at their own pomposity with Yiddish and food and some shared traditions. You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy “The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate,” because the editor includes a glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish terms (as well as some recipes). But here, as with most parodies, you really do have to know something about the object(s) being pilloried — in this case, the academic fads and fashions of the last half-century. And unfortunately, some of the material is dated. Nothing ages like university gossip.

So maybe the book does get a little long. Though the jokes are broad, the premise wears thin. These guys only do this once a year, so reading the book is like cramming all those years into one sitting. It’s a little hard to digest. And at the end, it’s still hard to decide on which one, latke or hamantashen, the smart money should bet.

Article courtesy the Forward.

David Kaufmann cooks for his family nightly in Washington, D.C.

 

Commercial Success


At Universal Studios, all the usual characters — Spider-Man
and the Rugrats — were out in force on Sunday, Nov. 24. But they weren’t just
there for photo ops with children, instead they were lighting menorahs,
spinning dreidels and eating the world’s biggest latke at the Chanukah
celebration in Universal City.

“We thought that Chanukah was one of the best Jewish
holidays that lent itself to the fun family entertainment, and so we worked
with a consultant and spoke with a number of rabbis from a variety of groups to
create this event,” said Brian Pope, Universal vice president of marketing
services, who said he hopes that the event — attended by Los Angeles Mayor
James Hahn, the Dodgers’ Shawn Green, and actor Justin Burfield from “Malcolm
in the Middle,” — will become an annual one.

That Chanukah has gotten its own event at Universal Studios
shows how far it has come: The little-known Jewish holiday –which once had to
fight for display space next to Santa — is now a major event on its own, even
when it comes a month before Christmas.

From movies to malls, from sitcoms to shopping, Chanukah has
gone mainstream; and while some see it as a sign of the resurgence of Jewish
identity and the acceptance of Jews in American society, others wonder if the
holiday’s success has come at the expense of its spirituality.

This Chanukah, if you head down to your local multiplex you
can see Adam Sandler belching his way through “Eight Crazy Nights,” an animated
Chanukah comedy (see story, page 10).

On television, Chabad’s “Chanukah, the Miniseries,” will be
broadcast on KCAL-TV each night at menorah-lighting time (between 4:15 and 4:30 p.m.). Two Chanukah shows will be presented on KCET-TV: a special Chanukah
episode of “Alef…Bet…Blastoff,” followed by “A Taste of Chanukah.” They
will be shown on Dec. 1 starting at 8:30 a.m.

You might also see Chanukah pop up on some sitcoms. Last
season on “Friends,” for example, an episode had Ross trying to teach his son,
Ben, about Chanukah. For children, Disney has a Chanukah book out, “Winnie the
Pooh and the Hanukkah Dreidel,” and there is “A Rugrats Chanukah” video.

Reminders of Chanukah abound: Every Ralphs supermarket will
display a large menorah, courtesy of Chabad, and most banks will put a small
plastic menorah in their windows. Chabad is also sponsoring a number of public
menorah ceremonies, such as the lighting of a 35-foot menorah in Beverly Hills Gardens,
the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica and at the Nixon Library in Yorba
Linda.

For shoppers there is an abundance of Chanukah items.
Hallmark offers 119 different Chanukah cards. Online flower sellers, such as
proflowers.com or 1800-Flowers, offer Chanukah bouquets for $39.99 and gift
baskets, complete with dreidl cookies, for $69.99. For those who have the urge to
splurge for Chanukah, Neiman Marcus has a $4,000 Steuben crystal menorah with
silver-plated candle cups.

The proliferation of Chanukah products has led retailers to
focus less on the fact that the holidays are solely about Christmas. “I have
noticed over time that it has gone from being the Christmas season to holiday
season,” said Tom Holiday, president of the Retail Advertising and Marketing
Association, a division of the National Retail Federation, which represents 100
trade organizations. “In retail, there is always a conscious effort to be aware
of the dates of Jewish holidays, but I see a more ecumenical approach in
general.”

All of this has taken Chanukah out of the Talmud and into
the mainstream.

Jews started celebrating Chanukah 2,000 years ago, when a
small band of Jewish fighters led by Judah Maccabee emerged victorious in their
battle with the Hellenists, who, led by King Antiochus, wanted to sway the Jews
away from God and turn them into idol-worshipping hedonists.

After the battle, the Jews found their Temple desecrated,
with only one vial of pure olive oil remaining, enough to light the menorah — a
daily ritual in the Temple — for one day. A miracle occurred when the oil
lasted eight days, which provided enough time for new oil to be pressed.

Since then, every year beginning on the 25th of the Hebrew
month of Kislev, Jews have been commemorating the occasion by making a blessing
and lighting a menorah for eight nights and by eating foods that are cooked in
oil, such as latkes.

Today, while many people don’t know the details of the
correct way to light the menorah (halacha dictates that the candles/oil must be
the same height and lit from right to left, using a shamash servant candle, and
that the lights must burn for at least half an hour), thanks to the the
ubiquity of its symbols, Chanukah has become a significant holidays on the
Jewish calendar, and one that Jews can easily identify with.

The fact that Chanukah usually occurs around Christmastime —
although this year it coincides with Thanksgiving — means that Jews don’t have
to co-opt another religion’s holiday as an excuse to give each other gifts
(although traditionally gelt — money — is given on Chanukah), and they don’t
have to feel left out during the holiday season.

Chanukah is not the only Jewish holiday or practice that has
over time accreted aspects of the larger culture.

“Jewish tradition has generally been responsive to the
various cultures that Jews live; that adds up to the idea of minhag (custom)
that varies from locale to locale,” said UCLA professor David N. Myers, who
teaches Jewish history. “[Jewish] language, culinary habits, dress norms all
change according to the different environments that they find themselves [in].”

“In the modern period,” Myers said, “the forces of
acculturation are very powerful, and one of the reasons Chanukah has been so
malleable is because it is not a major festival, and therefore the ritual
stakes not as high when you modify its meaning or significance.”

Rabbi Alan Flom of Burbank Temple Emmanuel said, “Most
rabbis think that Chanukah is a very minor holiday, but in our culture we have had
to make it a bigger holiday to compete in the marketplace. If we didn’t, I
think that Christmas would be so overwhelming, it would be even more difficult
to keep our people Jewish in this kind of an environment.”

However, many see the mainstreaming of Chanukah not as a de
facto response to Christmas but as a positive resurgence of Jewish identity.
“Chanukah has become front and center in Jewish life, and it’s a way for a lot
of people to discover a bridge to their heritage,” said Rabbi David Eliezrie of
Chabad of Orange County. “The subjective message in the mainstreaming of
Chanukah is that its OK to be Jewish, and I think that’s good.”

Others think that having Chanukah symbols everywhere
actually does have a religious significance, and not just a Jewish feel-good
one. “The Talmud says that one of the key ways to observe Chanukah is through
pirsumei nissah, publicizing the miracle,” said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, public
relations director for Chabad-Lubavitch on the West Coast. “That means lighting
the menorah, spreading the beautiful message of Chanukah. And thank God, you
can open your newspaper now and find that everyone is helping to publicize this
beautiful miracle.”

However, others believe that Chanukah has become a kind of
Jewish Christmas — a holiday whose religious significance has been almost
overshadowed by its commercial possibilities and universal appeal.

“The commercialization of Chanukah is particularly tragic,”
said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of Project Next Step of the Simon
Wiesenthal Center. “Commercializing Chanukah is a contradiction of its very
essence. If you take Jesus out of Christmas, you have a holiday where people
are nice to each other, feel upbeat. Although it’s missing the point, it is not
a violation of what Christmas is.

“Commercializing Chanukah is the opposite of the point.
Chanukah is not a liberation story — [under Antiochus] the Jews could have
lived in their country as free people without any other problem, other than
being asked to renounce their faith. The story of Chanukah is not one of being
asked to throw off the yoke of a foreign oppressor, but it is the issue of the
spiritual prevailing over the might of the decidedly unspiritual.”

“Chanukah is the story of the spark of Judaism striving to
be united with its God and its Torah and its mitzvot,” Alderstein added. “It is
not a substitute for the gift-giving of prevailing culture. Chanukah is about
the resistance of Jews to the prevailing culture of modernity and aesthetic
beauty.”

Claudia Wolf, an educator and program director for the
Shalom Nature Center in Malibu, holds a similar view. “It is bad that Jews feel
like they have to compensate by becoming almost like Christians,” she said.
“One student at my program told me that she was going home for Thanksgiving/Chanukah,
and her mother told her that she was not going to get any gifts until
Christmas, because that is really the gift-giving season.”

Rabbi Shlomo Holland, the director of development at Los
Angeles Kollel, agreed. “When we portray Chanukah in a superficial, shallow and
trivial way, in a sense we are ingraining in ourselves a new version of
Chanukah that was never meant to be, and we celebrate a holiday that is not the
essence of that holiday,” Holland explained.

“When we commercialize it, we don’t portray that, we just
portray a cute holiday where we light the menorah,” he continued. “Which, in
the eyes of the world, is not too different than a cute holiday where you light
up a tree-and you give presents here, and you give presents there, and rather than
looking for the obvious difference, one is looking for the similarities and the
sameness.”

Holland said that the essence of Chanukah is the message of
the light of Torah. “That light could break through what appeared to be the
wisdom of the Greek Hellenists, but was truly the darkness of illusion,” he
said. “The only thing that shines so powerful a light, that shows you what is
real, and what isn’t real, is the light of the Torah. If anything, that is
really the essence of Chanukah.”