It's the minor Jewish holiday that became a big seasonal celebration, which I once called the Peak Oil Holiday:
The Temple was recovered after a civil war and the oil lamps had to be kept burning. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, but it would take eight days to prepare more; miraculously one days supply of oil lasted for eight. We suspect that in years to come a lot more people will be praying for such a miracle.
And now that oil costs a quarter of what it did then, you can eat these for 32 days! My wife, Kelly Rossiter, published a terrific recipe in Planet Green a few years ago; here it is and they are the best you will find, I promise.
Kelly's Potato Latkes, by Way of Aunt Sara
Kelly Rossiter writes:
My husband is Jewish and grew up eating potato latkes every Hanukkah. I am Protestant and grew up eating mashed potatoes every Christmas. Shortly after we were married, he suggested that I get his Great Aunt Sara's latke recipe. It turned out that Aunt Sara was delighted to be asked and was happy to share her recipe. She was well into her nineties by then, and no longer had a kitchen to cook in so we had a little chat over the phone. It went like this:
AS: You take some potatoes.
KR: How many potatoes?
AS: Enough. Then you peel and grate them.
KR: How finely do you grate them?
AS: Not too fine, they'll be mushy. But not too thick, they won't stay together. Then you add some egg.
KR: How much egg?
AS: Just a bit. Then you add the matzo meal.
KR: How much?
AS: Until it looks right.
It sounds like a caricature, I know, but it really is true.
It points to a huge difference in the way Aunt Sara learned to cook and the way we learn to cook today, if we learn or cook at all. She had no Food Network, no celebrity-chef cookbooks, no takeout, no microwave dinners. She had her mother, and maybe her grandmother to show her what to do.
When you are standing at someone's elbow watching, suddenly "enough" and "until it looks right" make perfect sense. So, over the years through a bit of trial and error I now know what "enough" and "until it looks right" means, and so do my children.
These days I make the latkes for the family Hanukkah party, and they have also become my pot-luck contribution at our neighbours Christmas party. I use about 25 pounds to 30 pounds worth of potatoes for the latkes each year. I've always eyeballed it, a la Aunt Sara.
I thought I'd better try for some semblance of a recipe, though, so I made a little batch and wrote down amounts as I went along. In the spirit of Aunt Sara's cooking, however, you should assume that the amounts are approximate, and then put them in the pan once they look right to you.
I make the latkes in batches, because the potatoes turn brown once they are peeled. Some people put them into water with lemon juice added. I use a Cuisinart to grate the potatoes: small holes for the onions, large holes for the potatoes. Have a stack of tea towels and hand towels nearby, because you will have to wash your hands an astonishing number of times before you are done.
Kelly's Potato Latkes, by Way of Aunt SaraYields 15 latkes
3 lbs Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and grated
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2-1 small onion, finely grated
1 tsp salt
3 tbsp matzo meal
Oil for frying
Sour cream or apple sauce for serving
1. Squeeze the grated potatoes to remove any excess water.
2. Mix together all of the ingredients except the oil. You know you have enough egg and matzo if the potato doesn't instantly fall apart when you squeeze it.
3. In a large skillet heat about 1/2 inches of vegetable oil. If you are using a really good non-stick pan, you'll need much less oil. Heat the oil until hot but not smoking. Test the oil by dropping in a piece of potato. If it sizzles instantly, the oil is ready.
4. Put enough potato mixture into your hand to cover your palm. Over the sink, squeeze the mixture between your palms, removing as much water as possible.
5. If you are nervous about the hot oil, put the latke onto the end of your spatula and slide it gently into the oil, otherwise just carefully place it in from your hand. Some potato is bound to break away.
Do not despair if your latke breaks apart, it's going to happen once in awhile. Give the broken pieces to your family who will be hovering around the kitchen hoping for just that outcome.
Sometimes you can just push it back together in the pan and leave it, and it's fine. Do not overcrowd the pan because it will be too difficult to turn the latkes over without breaking them. I usually cook four at a time.
It is important to let the latke cook well on the bottom before trying to turn it over. I usually wait until I can see some brown creeping up the sides of the latke. If you turn them too soon, they will certainly fall apart.
6. Drain them on paper towels, or brown paper bags work too.
7. You can serve them immediately or keep them in airtight containers for a day or two. Reheat on a baking sheet in the oven at 350°F for about 10 minutes.
8. You can serve them with sour cream or applesauce depending on your preference. I'm a sour-cream girl all the way.