Tradition! Potato Latkes

Ah, Hanukkah. That most festive of Jewish holidays. Now, I know some of y’all may think it’s “Jewish Christmas,” but you really couldn’t be farther from the truth. Although it does typically fall close to Christmas, it is not traditionally a gift giving holiday except in the U.S. and certainly not a major holiday (no one is taking the day off work for Hanukkah). In our house, we do give a small gift each night but just one and never anything huge.

Hanukkah is the actually a celebration of the victory of a small number of Jews over their Greek oppressors. Around 200 BCE, Antiochus IV descended upon Jerusalem and outlawed the Jewish religion. Thousands were massacred and the Temple was desecrated, an altar to Zeus erected. A small number of Jews remained living in the hills and caves nearby. They found ways to study their religion and to fight for the rededication of the Temple. When this small band of Jews eventually regained control of the Temple, they found that the seven branched candelabra had only enough oil for one day. According to tradition, the oil lasted for eight nights, allowing them enough time to procure more oil.

Because of this “miracle,” during Hanukkah, it is traditional to eat foods fried in oil. Sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) are certainly a favorite, but the most traditional Hanukkah food is latkes (potato pancakes). Each year, our family throws a little Hanukkah party for neighborhood friends. We are one of only a handful of Jewish families here so it’s typically just us and a handful of non-Jewish friends who are more than happy to eat a bunch of fried stuff. I always pick up a big box of jelly doughnuts, fry up some chicken nuggets (or fish nuggets if you are going kosher dairy) and set out some wine for the adults. But the centerpiece of our party is always a big platter of latkes with sour cream and applesauce on the side.

Yes, I know I said it makes about twelve. But you’ll also see that I said it’s okay to eat them right off the draining tray.

Honestly, the box that you find in the kosher section at your supermarket is pretty darn tasty. And if I’m cooking for a large crowd, I totally go that route without any shame. But for our little get together, I try to make it special by making my latkes from scratch. It’s not hard and doesn’t use anything more exotic than a box grater and a little matzo meal.  I always recommend making more than you think you’ll need, but this recipe is a good start for a great party!

These are a few of my favorite photos from years past.

Classic Potato Latkes

  • 2 large Russet potatoes, peeled and cut lengthwise into quarters
  • 1 large yellow onion, peeled and cut into quarters
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 C matzo meal (or flour if you must)
  • 1 T coarse kosher salt
  • 1 t black pepper
  • Vegetable or olive oil for frying
  • Extra salt for seasoning, optional
  • Apple sauce and sour cream for topping

Using a food processor (mine died) with a grating attachment or a box grater, grate the potatoes and onion onto a clean dish towel. When everything is grated, gather the towel into a little bundle and squeeze and wring out as much liquid as you can. Work quickly from this point as your potatoes will begin to turn pinkish-brown.

Transfer potato mixture to a large mixing bowl. Stir in eggs, matzo meal, salt and pepper and mix until well combined. I actually mix mine with my hands so I can feel when everything is evenly combined.

With a damp hand, gather up a small handful of the potato mixture sightly larger than a golf ball. Gently form in to a ball slightly larger than a golf ball. Set aside on a plate next to your stove. You should have about 12 potato balls.

In a large heavy bottomed skillet or an electric skillet (set to medium high), heat about 1/4-1/2 inch of oil. When it is hot, place potato balls around the pan, leaving plenty of room between. Gently press down to flatten slightly. Cooking in batches, fry for 3-5 minutes or until brown and crispy (you can lift them just a little with your spatula to check). Flip and fry for another 4-5 minutes until very brown and crispy. 

As they finish cooking, transfer to a paper towel lined rack. If desired, sprinkle with a little extra salt as you take them out.

Place them on a platter (or who am I kidding, just eat them off the cooling rack) and serve with applesauce and/or sour cream for dipping (I sometimes like to stir some fresh chives into my sour cream). Best eaten hot while playing dreidel with a bunch of competitive kids (and sometimes adults).

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