Sundown Dec. 22 marks the start of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. During Hanukkah’s eight days, there will be lots of latkes.
While latkes are popular Hanukkah fare, it’s the oil they’re cooked in that’s symbolic. Foods fried in oil commemorate the one-day supply of oil that miraculously lasted eight days when Maccabees rededicated the temple in Jerusalem.
But why potato pancakes? It’s simple: Potatoes were plentiful.
With latkes, you’re after crispy on the outside and soft on the inside — not soggy or greasy. The most basic potato latke recipe mixes grated potatoes and onions with a binder, such as flour, eggs and seasonings.
But for a different spin, try mixing shredded potatoes with other root vegetables, fresh herbs and different seasonings. Latkes are often served with applesauce or sour cream, but you can top them with whatever you like.
Here are a few tips if you’re preparing latkes for Hanukkah — or any time of the year.
Which potatoes should you use? Starchier potatoes work best. Russet or baking potatoes are commonly used. You can also use unpeeled or peeled red-skin potatoes. If you don’t peel them, scrub them well before shredding. Yukon Gold potatoes are softer and provide a creamier texture. Also, sweet potatoes can work.
Can you use other vegetables? Try mixing shredded potatoes with other root vegetables, such as shredded carrots or parsnips. Zucchini and summer squash can be used, but thoroughly squeeze them of excess moisture.
Should the potatoes be shredded or grated? You can use the large holes of a box grater to shred the potatoes by hand. A food processor with a shredding disc will be quicker. If you’re after really quick and convenient, buy a bag of shredded hash browns. You’ll need to thaw the hash browns before making the latkes.
What will prevent the potatoes from turning dark? Work quickly, or put the shredded potatoes in cold water. If they turn a rusty color, give them a rinse under cold water. You can also use a little lemon juice.
How do you get crisp — not soggy — latkes? Get rid of the excess moisture. Once the potatoes are shredded, wrap in a clean kitchen tea towel (not terry cloth). Wrap the potatoes tightly, hold over a bowl or sink, and twist the towel to squeeze out the moisture.
What oil/fat should you use to fry the latkes? Use a neutral oil with a high smoke point. Vegetable or canola oil works, as will peanut. You can use olive oil, but its relatively low smoke point (the temperature it can reach before burning) makes it troublesome, because the latkes can burn. Rendered chicken fat, called schmaltz, can also be used.
– Adapted from Esther Kraft, Farmington Hills, Mich.