As a kid, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Hanukkah in November. Whenever that happened, it meant we got presents before everyone else. That was fun. On the other hand, it did make the end of December feel oddly isolating. An early Hanukkah was a reminder that we were different from the other kids at school, that our families believed in different things, that our food traditions were different, that we were weird.
Our parents, in their typically anti-establishment brand of wisdom, reminded us often that weird was good: “Normal is boring. Who would want to be normal?”
These tender hippies were not without their commitments to tradition, however, and one thing that was neither deviated from nor optional was the fact that Hanukkah belongs to latkes.
Each family has its own canonic, sacred recipe for these revered potato pancakes. Some people like the potatoes to be ground super fine for a truly pancake-like result. In my family, lacy is the name of the game — give us crispy edges or give us death. For that reason, adding sweet potatoes or zucchini is strictly forbidden — only starchy russet potatoes will do. And it’s not either-or; latkes are served with applesauce and sour cream.
My mom and my Grandma Glenda were the latke masters in our family, taking turns over the two electric skillets that Glenda brought out only for latke-frying.
There’s a reason the traditional foods of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, always have something to do with oil. The story of this holiday involves a second century B.C.E. struggle in which a one-day supply of lamp oil, found in a synagogue after it had been sacked by neighboring oppressors, somehow lasted eight days — long enough for a new supply to arrive.
We fry jelly doughnuts — sufganiyot — and potato pancakes while we remember the great miracle that saved our ancestors from darkness in their time of need and vulnerability.
My favorite oil-based miracle, however, is how it deftly emulsifies regular old ingredients into a creamy sauce, and so I’m here to offer you a small deviation from the regular Hanukkah plan: ajo blanco sauce. This magical emulsion, traditionally made as a cold soup, but presented here as a sauce, is nothing more than extra-virgin olive oil (the best-tasting one you have), some almonds, garlic, and a bit of vinegar.
The miracle here, occurring in a blender, is a smooth, creamy, garlicky sauce that is also vegan. Your classic Hanukkah tradition, but on vacation in Spain.
The ajo blanco sauce will keep for a day or two in the fridge (the garlic will intensify as it sits), and is a great companion to raw cucumbers, shellfish of all kinds, and grilled or roasted meats. Happy Hanukkah. Stay weird.
Ajo Blanco Sauce
½ cup blanched almonds
2 garlic cloves, finely grated
1½ tsp. Sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup ice water
Blend all ingredients in a blender until smooth and creamy, about 2 minutes; season generously with salt. Can be made up to a day ahead and kept covered and chilled until serving.
Classic Potato Latkes
Adapted from Yiddish Cuisine by Robert Sternberg
4 large white baking potatoes, peeled
2 medium-sized onions, halved and peeled
2 large eggs, beaten
⅓ cup matzoh meal
2½ Tbsp. salt (or more to taste)
Black pepper to taste
Peanut or vegetable oil for frying
Chopped dill or parsley to garnish
Preheat your oven to 200 degrees F.
Grate the onions by hand on a box grater. Then, grate the potatoes the same way and combine in a colander. (There is no way to make this less unpleasant. I’m sorry.)
Squeeze the potato and onion mixture one handful at a time to remove excess moisture, transferring to a mixing bowl as you go. Once you’ve squeezed every bit, dump the mixture back into the colander and do it again.
In the mixing bowl, combine the potato and onion mixture with the matzoh meal, beaten eggs, and salt and pepper. Start with 2½ tablespoons of salt, taste the first pancake for seasoning, and adjust the mix as necessary.
In a large, heavy skillet, heat 6 tablespoons oil over high heat until sizzling but not smoking. Add a quarter cup of the batter — giving it a little nudge into a small patty. Repeat this 3 or 4 times, until you have 4 or 5 latkes sizzling in the pan. Do not crowd them or the oil will cool down too much. Cook the latkes 3 or 4 minutes, before carefully flipping them over with a spatula. (If your stove is like mine, it has hot spots — don’t be afraid to nudge these around in the pan to get them browned evenly. They can take it.) Cook on the second side until they’re a deep golden brown and crisp around the edges.
Continue in batches with the remaining batter, stirring it in the mixing bowl occasionally to prevent discoloration. Regulate the heat and the amount of oil in the pan as you go, giving fresh oil a moment to heat up before you add more batter to the pan.
Slip the finished latkes into the warm oven on a plate lined with paper towels. Serve them absolutely the moment you’ve finished the frying, garnished with the chopped herbs. You can even set out plates on the table while you’re still frying if you have impatient friends whom you love very much.
Makes 16-20 latkes. Serve with applesauce, sour cream, and ajo blanco sauce.