There are some recipes that are kept sealed in the family vault and your only way to access them is to marry into the family. Luckily for me, I found a man who’s family is just as wonderful, loving, and accepting of me as he is, and as an added bonus, they enjoy really good food.
One of my first introductions to my now mother-in-law’s cooking was Hanukkah dinner. I was in high school at the time, but even all these years later, I remember being blown away by her latkes.
I was certainly no stranger to potato pancakes — I’ve been eating them my whole life — but somehow hers were different. They are different. Even following her exact recipe, mine never come out as good. At this point, I’ve been testing (and retesting) for years. I have an email my husband forwarded to me something like 5 or 6 years with the original recipe, and every Hanukkah when I go back to it and attempt to recreate them, I add my own notes on what I need to do differently. This is all with regards to process, not ingredients.
Each year I think I get a little closer to the perfect latke, and while they are received with rave reviews, I’m not quite there yet. Simply put, I’ve never had lighter latkes than hers.
The latke-making process is a lengthy one. It involves muscles, patience, and in some cases swaddling blankets. You’ve got to make sure the latkes are as dry as possible before frying. My mother-in-law would ring out her potatoes in old pillowcases, but per my husband’s suggestion, I begrudgingly handed over an old baby blanket this year and it worked amazingly well. It’s essentially a giant cheese cloth.
I’m a purist and like to grate the potatoes by hand. I use our food processor for the onions (because I would literally be standing in a puddle of my own tears if I attempted otherwise), but the grating is inconsistent. Perhaps a sign that I need to update our 10 year old food pro…?
Once you’ve grated your onions and potatoes and rung out all the liquid, you’re golden. (Like a latke! Ba dum tcha!)
Add a binding ingredient (egg), some seasoning (salt and pepper), and something to absorb excess moisture (matzo meal, potato starch, flour — your choice). Then we fry!
Cast iron is my go-to, but any heavy bottomed skillet or fry pan will work. If you’re making for a big crowd — and really, if you’re going through the trouble, why wouldn’t you make a double or triple batch?! — use more than one pan. Don’t forget to have my favorite fish spatula on hand!
I like to fry in canola oil, it has a clean flavor and a high smoking point. You’ve heard this before, but don’t overcrowd the pan. Even if you can get 10 latkes in there, you won’t be able to flip them. So stick with small batches leaving at least one inch on all sides. If you’re crazy like me and make 15 lbs of latkes at a time, it’ll only take you…. approximately 16 batches of frying in double pans to get them all made!!
LABOR. OF. LOVE.
I’m so exhausted just thinking about it.
Yes, it is a long, drawn out process, but it’s indicative of how special the holiday season is. It’s also why we only make them 1-2x each year.
Use sour cream if you must, but really these beg for homemade applesauce (recipe coming soon!). Share these with loved ones. It makes them taste so much better.
HAPPY HANUKKAH! (With love from my mother-in-law)
- 10 lbs russet potatoes
- 4 large onions
- 8 eggs, slightly beaten (start with 6!)
- ¾ - 1 cup matzo meal, potato starch, or flour
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1-2 large bottles of canola oil
Peel and grate potatoes, then place in large mixing bowls filled with room temperature water making sure they're completely covered. I let them sit in batches while I'm grating and then drain and refill with water at least two times. You want there to be very few bubbles at the top of the bowl.
Using a large cheese cloth (other options: old pillow case or baby swaddling blanket) squeeze out all excess moisture. Place in a large mixing bowl.
Grate onions using a food processor and squeeze out all water. Add to grated potatoes.
Add 6 beaten eggs (you can always add the other two if needed), matzo meal, salt, pepper, and baking powder. Mix to combine thoroughly. If mixture seems too dry, add more egg a little at a time.
Heat about 1 inch of canola oil in skillet (multiple pans, if using). When oil has reached about 375-400 F, carefully drop about 2 tablespoons of grated potatoes into the oil, making sure not to overcrowd the pan. I place about 6 or 7 in at a time. Flatten lightly with a spoon or spatula. Cook until light golden brown, about 2-3 minutes, then flip and cook on second side. This side will cook faster, maybe 2 minutes.
Drain on cooling racks lined with paper towels, then serve immediately with applesauce.