You'll love this recipe at Hanukkah, and I recommend using it many times during the year. We even make these latkes to serve with turkey for Thanksgiving.
Where do latkes come from? And how did they enter the lexicon of American cooking? As portrayed in Fiddler on the Roof, many eastern European emigrants were driven from their shtetls or villages by pogroms (state-sponsored violence). My maternal grandmother was one of them, and she lived her new life in the U.S. in command of the kitchen of a three-family home that is now on the U.S. Register of Historic Places, near Philadelphia. Her latkes and other specialties should be on a register, too. She cooked the family recipes of her homeland in Eastern Europe.
One of those recipes, one of my dreams is latkes. And my grandmother's latkes are different from all others. I've had the pleasure of sampling many versions. My grandmother's recipe beats them all. Thanks go to my wife, mother and sister for maintaining the recipe. The chief difference is eggs: there are none. Another difference, perhaps, is the grating method (which can be painful and a little bloody if you're not careful). No worries, though. We've modernized grating. You won't bleed.
Why no eggs? Eggs were a luxury in the peasant shtetls and rarely were they available in sufficient numbers to find their way into latkes. Yet virtually every western latke recipe I've seen uses eggs. In fact, latkes are often incorrectly called potato pancakes, and that explains the use of eggs.
My grandmother's latkes are not pancakes. They are oval tablespoon-sized pillows of golden brown crispy crunchy potato and onion goodness (pure simplicity) about one-half to three-quarters of an inch thick, with abundant nooks and crannies on their irregular surface. Pancake? NOT.
Let's deal with grating first. In my grandmother's kitchen, she used the flat rectangular wire-based Ace grater sold for 29 cents at the local hardware store. We wore out our last Ace and have not been able to find a new one. Now we use a Cuisinart. It does a fast job with no risk to our fingers. If you find an Ace and wish to grate this way, here's how:
- My grandmother, my mother or my sister, or one of my older cousins or aunts would position the Ace grater over a bowl, grasping it securely by the handle in one hand.
- Then, palming a peeled russet in the other hand, scrape it with authority and downward pressure, back and forth across the grater.
- As the potato grows smaller, retract your fingers to keep them from a painful encounter with the sharp wires.
- Be careful at the very end. Knuckles might be at risk, and more than once I witnessed a collision followed by a Yiddish expletive. Oy veh! No doubt some knuckle skin found its way into the batter.
Today, the medium blade on a Cuisinart makes fast work of the grating effort. We use a Cuisinart model DLC-8 (and the blades also work in the DLC-10). Fingers and knuckles are safe! So let's get going:
Ingredients for egg-free latkes (serves 4):
- Large skillet or frying pan with 1/4" of canola or quality trans-fat free vegetable oil, heated to just below the smoking point, about 375 degrees. An electric fry pan also works well.
- 4 or 5 large baking potatoes, peeled, placed in water to retard oxidation (russets are best)
- 1 large white or yellow onion (or several smaller onions), peeled under water to retard crying
- 1 tablespoon enriched flour per potato
- 1 tsp baking powder
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Grate the onion(s) using the DLC-837TX Medium grating blade (or use the cutting blade to liquefy the onion). Empty into a small bowl and set aside.
- Dry, then grate the potatoes twice on the medium grating blade. If grated once, the batter's consistency is going to be more like hash browns, and that's not what we want. After the first grating, simply transfer the contents of the Cuisinart to another bowl, refill the top and press through a second time.
- You may also use a handheld grater, like one of the four or five-sided aluminum types. The key is the consistency of the grated potatoes. You don't want to liquefy them, nor do you want hash browns. The next step signifies why you don't want to liquefy and helps you visualize the preferred consistency.
- Pour the grated potatoes into a fine mesh strainer held over the sink, and gently press down with the flat bottom of a spatula or back of a large wooden spoon to expel as much starchy water as possible from the batter. You can also press down with your clean hand.
- Dump the batter back into a medium mixing bowl and add the onion.
- Gently mix in the flour just to thicken the batter to the point where a tablespoonful is slightly stiff.
- Then gently mix in the baking powder.
- Place rounded to heaping tablespoons of batter into the hot oil, filling the frying pan with latkes but not too close together. Get a pair of tongs or a fork ready, to flip the latkes.
- While they cook, line a cookie sheet with two layers of paper towels for draining.
- When the bottoms are medium golden brown, flip the latkes to complete cooking.
- If you want them crunchy, cook to a darker color.
- If you are cooking in batches, be sure to add oil as needed. When both sides are the same color, pick up with the tongs, shake off excess oil and remove immediately to the paper towels. Reload the frying pan, repeating the process until all are cooked.
- It's ok to nibble as long as no one is watching. Otherwise, you'll be mobbed for samples.
- Be sure to also flip the latkes on the paper towels to blot surface oil from both sides.
- Salt and pepper to taste (you nibbled, of course).
You may keep latkes hot on paper towels on a cookie sheet in a 200 degree oven as you complete and serve the balance of the meal. Many people like applesauce while others prefer sour cream on the side. Me? I just like more egg-free latkes, cooked crispy crunchy, with a side of roast brisket of beef and a nice glass of California zin.
Murry Shohat (aka Moses the kosher butcher)