Each year, exactly two weeks before Hanukkah and beginning the year our family immigrated to the U.S.A., Aunt Esther and Mom began their debates. We had moved to a suburb only a fifteen-minute drive from Esther, my mother’s sister. The debate? Which one of them would host our annual latke holiday party. It wasn’t about whose house was better — that is, more fun for the kids, more comfortable, a better television setup or easier to get to. Hardly! Instead, every Hanukah debate which always devolved into an argument focused upon whose latkes were better; crispier, less greasy, thinner, even more symmetrical. The entire family knew whose latkes were tops, hands down. But at the risk of hurting our overly-sensitive aunt’s feelings, we all held our tongues.
Given Esther’s complete kitchen ineptitude, her cooking was so awful it defied description. No surprise, then, that her latkes were no exception. None of the family could fathom from where she’d gotten her god-awful recipes. In short order, we all understood our house was the preferred venue for the annual Hanukah latke feast.
In reality, our house was nowhere as enticing or entertaining as Aunt Esther’s and Uncle Sigmund’s. Neither Jake, my brother, nor I cared. We weren’t accustomed to the same entertainment extravagancies as were my cousins. Unlike their parents, ours were anything but consumers of games, toys or electronics, things they considered to be total time-wasters. Instead, they endorsed whatever struck them as having the potential to enhance our minds, improve our academic performance and help us become successful adults. Food was the only exception that ranked just as highly.
Exactly one Sunday before Hanukkah, our entire family gathered at Aunt and Uncle’s home for dinner. After the meal, Esther and Mom engaged, for the final time, in their “who’s hosting Hanukah” debate. Just as they began to make what sounded like head-way, busy-body Uncle Sigmund felt obliged to butt in.
“Why don’t you two girls take turns? Isn’t that what sisters do?” He asked, innocently. Instantly, the two women fell silent and their silence grew uncomfortably long.
“And why don’t you just mind your own business, huh? Go watch that dumb ball game of yours!” Aunt shouted at him.
“Besides that, we’re not girls just in case you didn’t notice!” Mom snapped.
My brother, our cousins, and I were in the living room, hands over our mouths stifling our hysteria over-hearing their exchanges. Next, we witnessed Sigmund slink out of the kitchen toward the den. He was muttering to himself in German, words we sensed were anything but polite. After several more moments of tension-filled quiet, the sisters resumed their latke-hosting argument. At last, we heard what resembled a hard-won resolution on my mother’s part.
“Don’t forget who’s older and who was old enough to take care of you when we were in the camps! And you know something? I’m still older!” She shouted at Aunt Esther. “And once and for all, this mishigas with you is settled, yes?”
“Okay, okay, enough already and yes, I know you took care of me then! You never let me forget this, have you noticed? But I’m making the applesauce and we’re using my Menorah!”
In unison, all of us in the living room breathed an extraordinarily loud sigh of relief.
Sara Bernstein’s Latke Recipe
8 Russet potatoes.
2 white or yellow onions (not sweet)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 Tbsp potato flour or 1 dry potato starch (if needed to thicken batter)
Salt & white pepper to taste
For frying: grape seed, canola or avocado oil
Equipment: large shallow non-stick skillet, heavy griddle or electric skillet; paper towels
oven-proof platter or cookie sheet
Peel and cube potatoes; cut onion into quarters
Soak potatoes and onion for 1/2 hour in cold water with 1 tsp salt added
Scoop vegetables out of water onto a cloth towel leaving excess starch in bowl
Puree in a food processor (*for coarser latkes use shredding blade)
Transfer processed potatoes and onions to a large mixing bowl
Meantime, in a small bowl beat eggs; add to the batter
For batter that’s too runny, strain through a fine sieve or add potato flour or starch
Mix until smooth
Latke cooking instructions:
Heat oven to 200, arrange a rack in the middle and place a paper-towel-lined baking sheet or oven-proof platter on the rack
Preheat a large skillet or griddle on low for 10 minutes; add oil to approximately 1/2” depth; increase heat to medium (oil should be hot but not smoking) *Test the oil for readiness by lowering a small amount of batter into the pan; it will sizzle when hot enough.
Lower spoonfuls of batter slowly (approx. 1/3 cup at a time) into the oil, smooth out gently with the back of a spoon or spatula.
When the edges begin to brown and look crisp, gently turn latkes over. Note: this is best accomplished using 2 spatulas.
Drain latkes on paper towels; transfer batches onto a heated platter in the oven after they’re drained to keep them warm.
Serve with plenty of applesauce or sour cream or preferably, both
- Any of the oils listed have a high smoking point, best for frying.
- If you use a stove-top griddle, one that fits across 2 burners is great.
- Ratio: 1 onion and 1 egg for every 4 potatoes.
- Potato flour or potato starch is best if your batter needs thickening.
- Pre-soaking cubed potatoes draws out excess starch, keeping your culinary creations from becoming gummy.