Hanukkah is often thought of as the festival of lights, but it also goes by a lesser known moniker: the festival of junk food. We light candles to remember how the oil miraculously burned for days longer than it should have, while the Maccabees fought to protect our religion and our temple. Yet Jews also commemorate the 8 nights of magic oil with, well, grease. Or schmaltz, as the yentas might say. This whole thing about the “traditional” jelly doughnuts and latkes is mysteriously missing from the books, but Jewish mother syndrome must have kicked in at some point over the past few centuries.
I leave things like doughnuts to the pros, but latkes certainly are part of my annual Hanukkah menu. I almost never make them more than once per season, although in light of the success of today’s endeavor, I might reconsider that policy. Ironically, this success was achieved in spite of (or as a result of) my going back to the basics with a good old fashioned cheese grater. Last year I used my food processor for the potato and onion, and not only did it feel like cheating, but the results were inferior. The potato shreds were too long and too uniform, the onion chopped rather than pulverized (which, in fact, is the more desirable consistency). But this time around, as my hand nearly grazed the ominous nubbins of the cheese grater, I marveled at the flakes of grated starch and the onion mush. It was just perfect. And just one little tool to wash!
The ground rules for latkes are as follows: potato, onion, eggs, flour, oil. The rest is up to you and your wild imagination. Beets, celeriac, sunchokes, whatever. Just be sure that the batter is wet and sticky enough to not fall apart in the frying pan, and that the oil is super, super hot. And, creating a trifecta of rules, I will add that a cheese grater (or Microplane with large holes) is the only way to go for your grating needs.
My friends and I have an annual latke party, and every year I try making something like apple, carrot, or mixed root vegetable latkes. Invariably, each year I find myself gravitating more toward the plain and simple potato variety. Something about the “fancy” latkes are always just too loud, too in-your-face. There are rare exceptions (my friend Ariel’s zucchini latkes), but sometimes the classic is just classic for a reason.
Because I am impossibly stubborn, this latke season I set out, again, to finally make the one exciting latke that would satisfy me. And, thanks to Food52, I think I might have done it. What I love most about the recipe below is that it’s flavorful and different without shouting it from the rooftops. It still looked like a latke and smelled like a latke, and the taste was latke but better. The mix of sweet and Russet potatoes results in a slightly sweeter than normal base, with a flavor boost from the parsnip and a zing from the ginger. The recipe calls for fennel seed, but I went with cumin seed instead, because it’s what I had. The nuttiness of cumin was a beautiful complement to the earthy flavor tones of the various root vegetables. I’d recommend ditching the fennel seed for cumin, even if you do have the former in stock. And while it’s your call if you prefer latkes thick or thin, I think thick is the way to go here. The flavors get lost a bit if the ratio of fried surface area to tender inside is too high.
Finally, let it be known that I am a condiment junkie. I see sandwiches as vehicles to deliver spicy mustard to my mouth and pancakes as a socially acceptable way to drink maple syrup. But I actually devoured these latkes without applesauce, without sour cream. And they were good. I suggest you keep these items at hand, so you don’t fall victim to the sweet smell of fried potatoes and drop your plans to make apple sauce, like I did, but in a latke emergency, these guys stand on their own. So go on, get schmaltzy.
Variegated Spiced Latkes
Adapted slightly from food52.com
1 sweet potato, pared (about 1 cup)
1 parsnip, pared (about 1/2 cup)
1 yellow onion (@1/2 cup)
2-3 russet potatoes (oryukongold) (@2 cups)
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and grated (@1 oz)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon fresh milled ground fennel seed or cumin seed
½ teaspoon fresh milled black pepper
2 eggs, beaten
3 ounces flour (6 tablespoons)
Peanut or other high smoke point oil, like canola oil
Homemade applesauce for serving
Sour cream, Greek yogurt, or crème fraiche for serving
- Hand grate the sweet potato, onion, and parsnip using the large holes into a large bowl first. I think hand grating is the only way to go for these.
- Washand scrub the russet potatoes very well, leaving the skins on. Remove any imperfections. Grate these last into the bowl with the other vegetables. Add the salt, pepper, fennel, and ginger. Let rest a few minutes.
- Using a colander (or cheesecloth if you prefer) wring all the excess moisture from the mix. Repeat, then return to the bowl. You can also squeeze handfuls of the mix in your hands to help.
- Mix in the beaten eggs and flour.
- Generously coat the bottom of a heavy pan with peanut oil (or other suitable oil). The oil need not be deeper than 1/8 inch, if even that. If you prefer thicker latkes, then you might have up to 1/4 inch oil. Heat to medium high until a drop of liquid would sizzle in the pan.
- Working in small batches ladle the mix to the heated pan to form 5-7 latkes with about a 3 inch diameter and about a 1/4 inch thickness after pressing down gently on the mix with a spatula. Fry each one on one side until golden brown, then flip and cook the other side until golden. Try to keep the depth of oil as low as possible, but make sure the vegetables cook through- soft on the inside, crunchy on the outside. Drain on paper towels. You should have 15-20 latkes from this recipe.
- Serve warm with generous dollops of sour cream and preferably homemade heirloom applesauce.