Photograph from iStock
As a young Jewish girl in Poland, Dana Fast’s non-religious, thoroughly assimilated family didn’t celebrate Hanukkah, even before Germany invaded the country in 1939. Still, they were forced into the horrid conditions of the Warsaw ghetto, as she recounts in her memoir, My Nine Lives, cowritten with her daughter, Yvona, and rereleased earlier this year as Good in the Midst of Evil. At age 11, Dana—then known as Lilka—made a daring escape and lived out the rest of the war under assumed names and identities in the care of kind strangers, including an orphanage run by Catholic nuns. After the war she lived in Israel before emigrating to the U.S. and eventually landing in Lake Clear.
Dana and Yvona—who writes a food column for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise—share a love of cooking, so the holiday season is a time for traditional Jewish and Polish specialties, including borscht, poppyseed bread, and of course, potato pancakes, or latkes. Following is Yvona’s recipe for the classic Hanukkah dish.
A national rather than a religious holiday, Hanukkah commemorates the victory of Judah Maccabee against the Hellenist Syrians in 165 BCE. The miracle of Hanukkah is the jar of oil, which contained one day’s worth but lasted for eight, the time needed to rededicate the temple. That’s why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days, with the menorah, an eight-branched candlestick or lamp, and foods cooked in oil—most notably latkes and sufganiyot (doughnuts).
The traditional Hanukkah latke is made with white potatoes—the most inexpensive food common in central and eastern Europe, where most Ashkenazi Jews made their home for centuries—and a minimal amount of matzo meal or flour added. Eggs provide the moisture to hold them together, and onions, salt and pepper enhance the flavor. Latkes are at their best hot and fresh, right out of the pan. They’re light in the middle, not greasy, and crispy around the edges. Obtaining the correct consistency can be tricky because the amount of matzo meal needed varies with the moisture of the potatoes. Russet or Idaho potatoes are best because they contain less moisture.
Traditionally potatoes were grated by hand with a medium-sized grater. Today, the food processor makes the job quick and easy, and the potatoes don’t have time to oxidize and turn an ugly brown. To get a drier product, squeeze the starchy liquid out of the potatoes after grating. Then add grated onion—about 1 cup for 4 cups of grated potatoes—season with salt and pepper to taste, stir in 2 beaten eggs and mix everything together with a wooden spoon. The mixture will still be a bit soupy, so add matzo meal or flour a couple tablespoons at a time, until it is thick but not dry—about the consistency of Adirondack mud.
A large fry pan is a must; cast iron is heavy but it retains heat and ensures even cooking. Coat your pan with a thin layer of oil and bring to medium-high heat. The oil must be hot so the pancakes crisp without absorbing too much fat. Oil with a high smoke point, such as peanut or soy, is a good choice for frying, but I’ve used both canola and corn oil with acceptable results. If the oil starts smoking too much, turn down the heat.
Your first latke is a test of your pan and your batter. Place a tablespoon of dough in the oil; it should sizzle on contact—if not, the oil is not hot enough. Press down with the back of the spoon to flatten the pancake to about a quarter inch, cook two to three minutes, then flip to brown the other side and make sure the potatoes are cooked through. Tasting allows you to adjust the seasonings in the remaining batter.
The most common toppings for latkes are sour cream or applesauce, though I’ve heard of folks eating them with cinnamon sugar, maple syrup, or various cheese spreads. Jarred, commercial applesauce can be dressed up by adding a little cinnamon and heating it, but homemade applesauce is not hard to make, in the microwave, crock pot or on the stove. You can also make a chunkier sauce than the supermarket kind or leave the skins on for added color.