Hanukkah – The miracle of the Latke

Emily introduces you to the joys of hanukkah, and one potato based joy in particular.

As someone who grew up in a household that celebrated any holiday that involved gifts and food, and went to a hippy school where I learned Kwanzaa songs alongside jinglebells, I always assumed that knowledge of Hanukkah was universal. But this weekend, when I found myself telling a tableful of friends about the Maccabees, I realized that a little bit of remedial education might be in order. After all, if you’re going to celebrate with a tableful of delicious Hanukkah food (which I highly recommend), you should know what you’re celebrating!

During the time of the Roman Empire, an armed conflict broke out between the government and the jews, who were a persecuted religious minority. Some of the Jewish people formed a militant group called the Maccabees, and resisted Roman forces. After much struggle, the Maccabees recaptured the major temple in the center of Jerusalem, only to find that the romans had filled it with statues of their gods, and used the alter for animal sacrifices. To purify the temple, Jewish law required that they burn ritual oil in the temple’s menorah (a kind of a candle holder) for eight days and nights. Although they only had enough oil for one night, the lamp burned continuously throughout the eight days, until the temple was purified.

During Hanukkah, jews celebrate the miracle of the menorah by lighting one candle a night over the course of eight nights in an eight pronged candelabra, and eating fried foods. And really, what better way to celebrate an oil lamp miracle is there? Eastern european ashkenazi jews often eat sufganiyot, little doughnuts stuffed with jelly, or other sweet fillings. Arabic sephardic jews may indulge in bricks a l’oeuf, savory puff pastry pockets, or burmuelos, a type of honeyed fritter. And then, of course, there is the Hanukkah treat to rule them all; the universally beloved latke.

Everyone will tell you that their bubbe (a jewish term of endearment for grandmothers) makes the world’s best latkes. But my bubbe, a lovely little woman named Betty, whose warmth and kindness was only matched by the deliciousness of her latkes, really did! She lived in a little apartment tucked away behind a glassed in courtyard, and when we went to her house for out annual Hanukkah celebration as children, I could swear I smelled the frying latkes from all the way down the hallway. So one year, when she invited me to come over early and help cook, I was so excited I could barely wait for Hanukkah to arrive.

If you think I’m going to share the specifics of Betty’s famed latke recipe with you guys, a crowd of internet strangers, than you are sadly mistaken.I have the distinct feeling that she wouldn’t be happy with me, and as nice as it would be to see Betty again, inviting a haunting by a vengeful grandmotherly ghost with access to hot oil isn’t exactly high on my holiday to do list! So instead, here’s a basic recipe for you to improvise with. Feel free to add and substitute to your heart’s desire; after all, that’s how classic latke recipes are born.

  1. Grate a whole mess of potatoes and onions in a bowl. My usual ratio is two potatoes for every onion, but it depends on the relative sizes of your potatoes and onions. If you have a food processor with a grater attachment, feel free to get fancy and use it for shredding, you lucky duck!

  2. Take the messy pile of grated veggies, sprinkle with salt, and leave it to drain in a colander, squishing it down periodically to get rid of excess moisture.

  3. Once the potatoes have drained, rinse them off, squeezing out the moisture with your hands one last time, and mix in ¼ cup of flour, matzo meal, or bread crumbs, and one egg for every two potatoes you used. Stir the mixture well with a wooden spoon until everything is combined.

  4. Heat any oil with a high smoke point, such as vegetable, peanut, or sunflower seed oil, in a heavy bottom frying pan. When the oil is hot, drop in a spoonful of the potato mixture, flattening it with the back of your spoon like a regular pancake, and flipping it after about a minute or so. Transfer finished latkes to a paper towel covered plate to drain.

This might seem like a lot of work, but keep in mind that you can fry the latkes well in advance and keep them warm in a heated oven to no ill effect until your guests arrive. In fact, this treatment can even make them a little crispier! Once you’re ready to serve them, I highly recommend pairing your latkes with the traditional accompaniments of sour cream and homemade applesauce. But be warned, latkes can be addictive, and I promise you’ll be surprised at how fast your piled high plate dwindles to nothing. It’s a good thing for our arteries that hanukkah only comes once (ok, eight times) a year!

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