A latke primer
This December, Jewish mothers all over the world will take to their kitchens to make the traditional Hanukkah potato pancakes called latkes. They’ll grate potatoes and onions, mix them with eggs, shape them into discs and fry them in oil. And by the end of the process, most of them will wind up cursing.
The pancakes need to be fried in shallow pans and therefore in tedious, small batches; the whole house will take on the smell of a fried-chicken post after hours; and the oil will splatter everywhere, rendering the kitchen an all-at-once slippery yet sticky mess.
Even so, there’s nothing that says “family” more than an apron-clad mother or grandmother frying latkes only as quickly as they can be eaten by bystanders awaiting the crispy, hashbrown-like pancakes. It’s the Jewish holiday version of a Norman Rockwell painting. Not to mention, latkes are delicious.
While latkes are traditional for Hanukkah – fried in oil, they commemorate the ancient miracle that happened when enough oil to light up the temple for one night lasted for eight – they’re popular all year long. As one Catholic friend put it, “Everyone likes fried potatoes, and everyone likes hashbrowns. Of course we like latkes!”
Pam Gruber, a former Mary Kay Cosmetics executive and mother of Kenny & Ziggy’s delicatessen owner Ziggy Gruber, agrees and adds, “Latkes have got a better taste than French fries because they’ve got the onion in them.”
Pam grew up in the UK and retains a slight English accent but says that latkes are more American. “We had brisket and matzah ball soup in England, but I didn’t grow up eating latkes.” She learned to love them after meeting her husband Eugene Gruber at his family’s restaurant on Madison Avenue. “When we got married in 1966, his father was the big cook with all the recipes. He showed me how to do a lot of them.
“Latkes was a big family time,” Pam remembers. “Even though my father-in-law made them for the delis, he made it his business to celebrate Hanukkah with the family at home. We all got involved. He was doing all the mixing, my mother-in-law would be putting them in the pan, we’d be stacking them on the plate and running them to the table.”
Traditional potato latke recipes involve a mix of grated potato (starchier potatoes like russets equal crispier pancakes), grated onion, flour, eggs, salt and pepper. But somewhere in the long history of latkes, cooks began experimenting with variations. Emeril Lagasse has a recipe. Martha Stewart offers 20 versions, from zucchini-parmesan to gluten free to sweet potato (of course, she also suggests making your own menorah by painting a branch and somehow gluing candleholders to it, but that’s another story). Gwyneth Paltrow suggests making a big “latke pie”(gluten free, of course) in the oven, because “we’ve yet to meet someone who loves standing over the stove frying them all day.” A website called Joy of Kosher even shares “8 Epic Latke Topping Ideas,” including meat sauce, nut butter and apple slices and olive tapenade.
For purists, though, nothing beats the tried and true. “My recipe is pretty simple,” Pam says. “It doesn’t change that much through the years. Just that there was always a little fight with my mother-in-law over the salt. My father-in-law wanted more, and she would say, ‘That’s enough, that’s enough!’ It’s the same one Ziggy uses in the deli. I just do it more from the head than he does.”
Editor's note: Click here for Pam's latke recipe.
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