Latkes, which of course are potato pancakes, are right up there with horseradish-on-homemade-matzo sandwiches among my favorite Jewish holiday foods. There are at least as many theories about how to make the best latkes as there are ways to spell Chanukah. (My friend Jay Gurewitsch and the New York Times prefer “Hanukkah.”)
Jay has provided a helpful reminder (see his letter to the editor on page 2) about the meaning of the eight-night Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony. I subscribe to the classic nine-word summary of most Jewish holidays: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.”
My own theory of latkes is that they should be as browned and crispy as possible. I like using Yukon golds for that reason, whereas the Times’s Melissa Clark says to use russets.
There are two critical factors: First, you must squeeze every last bit of liquid out of the grated potatoes. To do this, Clark’s dishtowel is useless. You’ve got to use cheesecloth. Second, you need to get the oil really hot. I use more or less equal amounts of olive and peanut oil, the former for flavor, the latter for high-temperature tolerance without smoking.
to serve 8 people
8 medium-size Yukon gold potatoes, washed but not peeled (about 3 lbs.)
1 large or 2 small sweet onions with skin and ends removed (about 3/4 lb.)
Juice of 1 large lemon
3 large eggs
1/2 to one cup matzo meal
3 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. white pepper
Extra virgin olive oil and peanut oil for frying
Cheesecloth for squeezing water from potatoes
Sour cream and applesauce for garnish
Grate the potatoes and onions coarsely into a large bowl. Use a food processor with the grater attachment if you have it. Or grate by hand using the large holes on a box grater or flat grater. As you work, toss the grated potato with fresh lemon juice to keep it from turning black.
When the potatoes and onions are all grated, wrap one large handful at a time in cheesecloth and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Place squeezed potato-onion mixture in a dry bowl, stir in eggs, then stir in enough matzo meal to hold the mixture together loosely (the amount may vary depending on the moisture in your mixture and brand of matzo). Season with salt and white pepper.
Pour olive oil and peanut oil in approximately equal amounts to a depth of a quarter to a half inch in a large skillet (or two). Warm the oil over medium high heat, and when it is shimmering hot (do not let it smoke), drop in tablespoonfuls of the potato mixture and flatten gently into small cakes, about 3 or 4 inches in diameter.
Fry until golden brown — let them get fairly dark — on both sides, then remove latkes to a cookie sheet and keep them warm in the oven until serving. Add olive oil and peanut oil as needed to the skillet.