A latke is a latke is a latke - or is it?
While many of us grew up thinking it was sacrilegious to make our favorite Hanukkah treat with anything but russet potatoes, yellow onions, white eggs, kosher salt, black pepper and potato starch, many chefs nowadays are frying up the traditional pancake with ingredients like carrots, zucchini, currants - even rutabaga and parsnips.
London Grill's Michael McNally is celebrating the Holiday of the Oil by offering different latkes every night for the month of December, one made with portabella mushrooms and goat cheese, another with zucchini and sun-dried tomatoes. He will also serve his Lithuanian grandmother's basic latke recipe, which, he admits, he likes the best.
But just how far afield from Grandma's latkes can one go, and more important, will the latkes be flat, dry and tasteless if we use any other vegetable than the sturdy, starchy russet potato?
"It's all about the science," says Jeffrey Nathan, Jewish cookbook author and chef/owner of Abigael's kosher restaurants in Manhattan. "Russets and Yukon Golds have the same high starch content, so you need less flour to bind the latke together. The less flour, the richer the potato flavor, and that's what we all want."
Nathan favors the Yukon's earthy flavor and creamy texture and, of course, there's that beautiful golden color. But they're also considerably more expensive, so you might want to save them for intimate get-togethers or mix them with the russets.
If you want to add different vegetables such as zucchini, cauliflower, carrots, yams or parsnips, you need to adjust the starch accordingly. Nathan recommends using proportions of three-quarters potatoes and one-quarter the other vegetables. When adding yams or parsnips, use no more than half in the mix, as those root vegetables have almost no starch content and the latkes won't get crisp.
Latke wisdom, beginning with our great-grandmothers and carrying over until today, says the fried patties should be creamy and crispy. Some say it's all in the eggs.
Matthew Levin, executive chef at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, loves his latkes rich and uses his mother's recipe from the old country, which includes three whole eggs plus three egg yolks for every 5 pounds of Idaho potatoes.
Laura Frankel, executive chef at the Wolfgang Puck Kosher Catering and cafe at the Spertus Institute for Jewish studies in Chicago, uses only stiffly beaten egg whites, insisting it makes the latkes lighter.
Another lively discussion is about great-grandma's box grater versus its descendant, the - dare I say it? - food processor. According to our chef/experts, while the ancient instrument produces better results, the time saved keeps those modern processors whirling. Interestingly, while chefs use them exclusively in their commercial kitchens, at home, they prefer grating the potatoes and onions just like the grand matriarchs.
In fact, every year Levin and his wife, Kelly, host an intimate, hand-grated latke party for 50 at home. A few hours before sundown, when the gathering officially begins, family, friends and neighbors crowd into Levin's spacious, functional kitchen demanding a grater and some potatoes so they can help him and his mother - for years, the designated latke expert - prepare the batter. The potatoes are already peeled and sitting in a cooler. When the process gets going, it's grate, mix together and fry.
So much for the old rule that if you're having more than eight people for dinner you have to freeze and reheat the latkes.
Levin's mother, Judi Simms, who is in charge of frying the latkes, has four burners fired up, each covered with a heavy cast-iron pan. Her son insists that Mom produces 25 to 30 latkes at a time. "Kelly is standing behind her with a paper-towel-lined tray and, if my dad or my sons don't snag them first, we have a piping-hot tray of latkes on the buffet table every 10 minutes. People gather all over the dining and living room, standing, sitting, inhaling the latkes. This goes on for about two hours, until Mom gets exhausted. Even though we're there to back her up, she won't let anyone else near the spatula."
In addition to the traditional Ashkenazi latkes, Levin makes his own crème fraiche and an original applesauce creation, Spiced Apple and Gin Puree. He prefers experimenting with toppings rather than filling the latke with divergent ingredients.
But McNally loves adding various ingredients to the russet-based latke batter, including the root vegetables rutabaga, parsnip and celeriac. His Italian-influenced latkes contain zucchini, onion, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes and Parmesan, and a dollop of tomato sauce. He's forever coming up with new toppings, such as his pear butter made with fresh pears, lemon juice and butter; he also loves drizzling truffle oil over most of his creations.
Although Laura Frankel likes her latkes traditional, lately she's been setting up a latke bar of toppings such as apple chutney, smoked salmon dip with caviar, kalamata tapenade, and roasted pepper sauce, along with the expected but still loved applesauce and sour cream. She prefers making appetizer-size latkes, about 11/2-inch rounds, so that a guest can taste a different flavor with each bite.
The kosher chef is also fond of making the Sephardic Italian favorite, Arancini di Farro, a croquette made from an ancient grain that is more like a fritter and stays crispy for hours. Now there's a solution to the reheating problem.
Yes, our grand matriarchs would be a little shocked by all those ingredients invading the potatoes and onions, and clearly, a traditional latke always has a place at the table. But if you do want to experiment with other ingredients, don't abandon Grandma's age-old method: Grate potato and onions into shreds on a sturdy box grater, throw them into ice water with a little aspirin to retain the color, squeeze them within an inch of their life to get out the liquid, add other ingredients, one by one, using your hands to moosh everything together, and then form uneven little patties and fry in hot oil and, when they are the perfect shade of brown, carefully lift them out - creamy on the inside, wispy and crispy on the outside.
Spiced Apple Puree With Gin
Makes 12 servings (about 1 cup each)
30 apples (10 each Granny Smith, Gala and McIntosh), cored, peeled and cut into large chunks
1/2 cup muscovado sugar (or best quality brown sugar)
2 cinnamon sticks
1 tablespoon freshly ground nutmeg
2 star anise, ground fine
3 allspice berries, ground
1 cup good gin, divided (the chef favors Hendricks)
In a large, nonreactive saucepan, combine the apples, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, star anise and allspice.
Sweat apples until soft; deglaze pot with 1/2 cup gin.
Continue cooking to reduce the liquid, as desired.
Remove cinnamon sticks. Use a blender (immersion or free-standing) to puree the apples as desired, chunky or smooth. Chill the puree for 2 hours.
Just before serving, stir in the last 1/2 cup gin.
258 calories, 1 gram protein, 56 grams carbohydrates, 44 grams sugar, 1 gram fat, no cholesterol, 4 milligrams sodium, 9 grams dietary fiber.
Golden Mashed Potato Pancakes
Makes six (5- to 6-inch) pancakes
4 Yukon gold potatoes (about 11/2 pounds total)
3 tablespoons butter, divided use, plus more for frying
2 tablespoons cream
2/3 cup milk, approximate
2 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon white truffle oil or best olive oil, plus some to drizzle at table
1 bunch chives, finely sliced, plus some for garnish
Salt and fresh ground pepper
1 large shallot, minced
4 chanterelle mushrooms, large, cleaned and sliced
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Bake the potatoes until soft; let cool enough to handle. Remove skins; mash potatoes lump-free. Blend in 2 tablespoons butter, the cream, milk, egg yolks, truffle oil, chives, salt and pepper.
Heat a large skillet. Melt one tablespoon of butter and sauté the shallot and mushrooms. Combine with potato mixture. Form 6 patties. If mixture is too thick to form patties easily, add a bit more milk. (Mixture can be held in refrigerator for up to two days. Bring to room temperature before cooking.)
Heat a heavy 12-inch skillet and melt enough butter to cover bottom of pan. Fry potato patties over medium heat in two batches until golden and crunchy on both sides.
Drizzle with more truffle oil, and garnish with long wispy chives. Serve at once.
- From cooking teacher and caterer Jean Brady
Per pancake: 227 calories, 7 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 14 grams fat, 95 milligrams cholesterol, 179 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 25 to 30 latkes
5 pounds Idaho potatoes, peeled
1 Spanish onion
3 large eggs plus 3 egg yolks
Sea salt and white pepper, to taste
5 to 7 tablespoons potato starch
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Grapeseed oil for frying
On a box grater, shred potatoes and onion together.
In a bowl, beat the eggs, egg yolks, salt, pepper, potato starch and flour. Stir in the potatoes and onion, mix evenly.
In a cast-iron pan, heat 1/8-inch oil to 375 degrees.
With a tablespoon, divide and shape the mixture into latkes, carefully slipping each one into the oil.
Fry until latkes are browned and crisp on both sides, 2 to 3 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove to drain on paper towels and serve immediately.
Per serving (per latke):
87 calories, 3 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 2 grams fat, 42 milligrams cholesterol, 10 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Two-Potato, Zucchini and Carrot Latkes
Makes 8 (5- to 6-inch) pancakes
1 red potato (5 ounces)
1 or 2 russet potatoes (13 ounces total)
1 small zucchini (4 ounces), seeded
1 small carrot (3 ounces)
1/2 onion (3 ounces)
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 clove garlic, minced
3 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon each: chopped tarragon and parsley
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
Safflower or canola oil to fry
Using a hand grater or the fine grating disc of a food processor, grate the potatoes, zucchini, carrot and onion. Stir in the lemon juice, salt, pepper and garlic. Let sit 20 minutes, then squeeze excess moisture from the mixture.
Sprinkle in flour, tarragon and parsley. Add the eggs. Stir until thoroughly combined.
Heat a heavy 12-inch skillet medium-hot, 2 minutes. Pour 1/8 inch oil into the pan. When oil is hot, carefully scoop batter into pan. Flatten each pancake very thin. Do not crowd the pancakes.
Fry pancakes until browned and crunchy, about 7 minutes on each side, raising or lowering heat as needed.
Line a platter with layers of paper towels. Using a slotted spatula, remove pancakes to platter. Serve at once. Repeat frying, adding additional oil to pan, as needed.
Per serving (per latke):
119 calories, 4 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 5 grams fat, 53 milligrams cholesterol, 29 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.