Here’s how not to cook a latke: Buy them from Russ & Daughters where the “homemade potato latkes” are $2.99 each, or 10 for $25. TEN LATKES FOR $25? Are you high? Do you know what is in a latke? Also, a reheated latke is a bad latke. Fact! So here, have a seat-no, over there, by the menorah. Have a piece of gelt. Make yourself comfortable.
On Hanukkah, Jews are supposed to cook food fried in oil to commemorate the eight days that the Maccabees’ lamp stayed lit with very little oil, as Sarah Palin has so helpfully reminded us. The latke is the most widespread of the fried foods that Jews tend to cook, though doughnuts are also popular. (FYI, Dunkin’ Donuts are not all kosher! Check with your rabbi.) Other options: fried Snickers bars, fried dough, tempura broccoli.
But we’re not here to make tempura broccoli! (Though if we were, I would tell you that you can get Panko crumbs at the Red Hook Fairway on this random shelf near the olive bar. You’re welcome!) We’re here to make LATKES! So first, it helps if your mom, like mine, made you a cookbook a few years ago featuring all of the time-worn Shafrir family recipes, handed down lovingly through the generations. Such as my grandmother’s famous flank steak recipe: Marinate one flank steak overnight/all day in half a bottle of Wishbone Italian dressing in a nonmetallic container, broil/barbecue on each side for approximately 5–10 minutes, and slice thinly against the grain. Now that’s home cooking.
For latkes, you’ll need the following: 4 Idaho potatoes, 1/2 small onion, 3 large eggs, 1 teaspoon salt, 2–3 tablespoons flour, and 1/4 teaspoon baking powder. This should make at least 20 smallish latkes. Now let’s do some math. A 5-pound bag of potatoes (so, like, 15 potatoes probably) at FreshDirect is $2.49, so that’s approximately 17 cents per potato, so that’s 68 cents worth of potatoes. A two-pound bag of onions, which is approximately 7 onions, is 99 cents, so 14 cents per onion, and since you’re only using half, that’s 7 cents. A dozen large eggs costs $1.99, so we’re looking at approximately 17 cents per egg, so that’s 51 cents’ worth of eggs. I’m just going to ASSUME that you have salt, flour, and baking powder around. If you don’t, okay, let’s add another 50 cents on there. Oh and then of course you need oil, which my mom doesn’t have in her list of ingredients. I would not use peanut oil because it gets too hot. I like vegetable oil. You can also use canola oil. Don’t use olive oil, even though I suppose that’s the most technically historically accurate thing to use, because then your latkes will taste gross. So a 24-ounce bottle of Wesson vegetable oil is $3.99, and you’ll probably use-let’s be generous here-maybe half the bottle (no one said these were healthy!), so we’re talking like 2 bucks worth of oil. That is, if you don’t already have oil around, which you might.
So your 20 latkes will cost $3.76 if you don’t have oil or flour or baking powder or salt. That’s the MAXIMUM they will cost. That’s 19 cents a latke.
And you’re still going to order them from Russ & Daughters? You must not be Jewish.
So now, the fun part! Well, actually, this part kind of sucks, because I am a purist and I believe that you should grate the potatoes and onions by hand. This is by no means required. Some people like to use the shredding blade for their food processor. I personally believe that latkes require some sweat equity, and so I hand-grate. You’ll want a box grater. Grate the potatoes and squeeze out the water. This is very important, or your latkes will be too soggy. If you have cheesecloth for this step, use it. Then grate the onions. You can mix them together now.
You should be wearing an apron, by the way. Shit’s about to get messy.
Separate the eggs. Put the whites into a large mixing bowl and beat them until they’re stiff. I use a hand mixer. If you use a whisk you’ll be there for days. Once you’ve done that, you can start heating the oil. Not too much oil-you’re not deep-frying-but not, like, that little soupÃƒÂ§on of oil that you sprinkle onto the pan when you’re sauteing a piece of fish. You know? You want those latkes nice and crispy.
So the oil is heating. You want that oil HOT. Now, mix together the potatoes, onion, and egg yolks. Then you fold in the egg whites and add the salt, flour, and baking powder. It WILL look gloopy. Don’t be scared! However, if the mixture is really soupy you can add a LITTLE bit more flour, but not too much. You know how crabcakes sometimes have way too much filler and not enough crab? Same idea.
Once your oil is hot hot hot, drop the mixture by tablespoons into the hot oil.
OMG I can’t believe I almost forgot something really important-you want to use a CAST-IRON pan. If you use a nonstick pan I will fucking kill you. Cast-iron is the only way to go. I mean, you really shouldn’t be using nonstick pans anyway, because they give you cancer, but here, especially, you want to be using a cast-iron pan. Very, very important.
Okay. Whew. So you’re dropping the mixture into the pan (the CAST-IRON one) and you want to be really careful about not crowding the pan. Just fry a few at a time. We’re not in a rush here! It’s Hanukkah. If people are getting antsy, throw a dreidel at them and tell them to shut the fuck up. Or just give them another glass of wine-I guess that would be the quote-unquote “nice” thing to do.
Remember how I said drop the mixture by tablespoons? You’re not making monstrous oversized American IHOP-style pancakes here. These are supposed to be small. You are supposed to eat several of them, and they are more delicious if they are small.
Cook them for a minute or so on each side. You’ll know when they’re done. While they’re cooking you should also set up a plate with a couple paper towels on it and have some extra paper towels hanging around, to drain them. When they’re done, put them on the plate and pat them lightly with the paper towels. Call over your impatient guests and serve them. They can help themselves to applesauce and sour cream from the fridge.
Previous recipes from The Awl Cookbook