Let me teach you a bit about the origins of the food customs associated with the eight days of Hanukkah – potato latkes.
Early texts recount the rebellion, the recapture of the temple and rededication ceremony, but references to the “miracle” connected to Hanukkah do not appear until nearly 600 years later. We learn that the remaining supply of consecrated oil for the menorah would last only a single day. And yet, this small amount kept the wicks burning for eight days (which is how long it would take to press fresh oil).
Hanukkah is sometimes called the Festival of Lights or the Miracle of the Oil, and the latter is why we find the holiday tradition of eating foods cooked in oil. Since the potato wasn’t known in Eastern Europe or the Mediterranean region until the 16th century, why does the potato latke take center stage on the menu?
Originally, the foods fried in oil for Hanukkah were limited to what was regionally available, usually a form of sweetened dough. In the Middle East, the holiday falls near the end of the olive-pressing season, and the oil of choice would be olive oil. There were no olive trees in Russia and Poland, so the oil source would be limited to rendered chicken fat, known as schmaltz.
Potatoes didn’t become widely available in Eastern Europe until the late 18th century when failing grain crops were replaced with the hardy, nutritious tuber. As the Jewish population grew during the 19th century, they developed a wide range of dishes featuring potatoes, including potato latkes.
Jewish immigrants brought their culinary traditions to this country, and recipes for latkes appeared in several cookbooks of the early 20th century. These tasty, hearty pancakes made from just a few ingredients became quite popular. Before long (as well as today) you could find packaged mixes from brands such as Aunt Jemima, Manischewitz and Streit’s.
You don’t need a mix to make delicious potato latkes. The typical recipe includes just a few ingredients: potato, onion, matzo meal and egg. One time-consuming step is grating the raw potatoes and onions, which may explain why some cooks preferred a mix. A few tablespoons of matzo meal will bind the batter as well as add better taste and texture than the oft-substituted bread crumbs.
If you are in a bit of a hurry and want to skip the grating step, a package of shredded potatoes from the dairy aisle or some shredded Ore-Idas from the freezer section of your grocer can be substituted. We’ve sometimes repurposed leftover mashed potatoes to make latkes, but these lack the lovely texture of crunchy potato shreds.
No matter the source for your potatoes, you’ll need to be patient while they shed most of their moisture or you’ll have messy sizzle and spatter when they hit the oil. Be sure to keep the bottom of the skillet coated with a thin layer of oil while frying to ensure a crispy crust. Although some like applesauce with their latkes, we prefer them served with dollops of rich sour cream. Happy Hanukkah!
2 russet potatoes*
1 medium onion
1 egg yolk
2 T matzo meal
1 T chopped parsley
1/2 t salt
1/4 t white pepper
oil for frying
Peel the potatoes and grate into a colander using the large side of a box grater. Peel the onion and grate into the colander with the potatoes. Using a wooden spoon, press the potato-onion mixture to drain off moisture; set aside. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together egg, egg yolk, matzo meal, parsley, salt and pepper. Add the drained potatoes and onion; fold to thoroughly combine.
Lightly cover the bottom of a large skillet with a thin layer of oil and place over medium heat. Form latkes by scooping up 2 T of batter with a spatula and pressing into a circle.
Place in the skillet and repeat until the skillet is filled with a single layer of latkes. Cook until browned and crisp, about 3 minutes; turn over latkes and cook another 3 to 4 minutes. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate and cover loosely with foil to keep warm. Repeat until all the batter has been cooked, replenishing oil as needed. Serve warm with sour cream. Yield: 18 latkes.
Store leftovers in a sealed container in the refrigerator. To reheat, place in a single layer on a foil-lined cookie sheet and bake for 10 minutes at 425 F.
I hope you enjoy them.