"No self-respecting bubbe would be caught dead with a store-bought latke mix."
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I think we can all agree that boxed mixes for latkes are completely unnecessary. If you can't grate a couple of potatoes and an onion, beat in an egg, add a few tablespoons of flour (or matzo meal), and fry the mixture in a skillet, then you don't have much business being in the kitchen. But latke mixes do exist, and each year around Hanukkah they begin to pop up on grocery store shelves alongside bottles of sweet Kedem wine and mesh bags of chocolate gelt.
Last weekend I made a trip out to a kosher grocery store on a hunt for latke mixes. I expected to find, if not a whole aisle, then at least a whole shelf filled with options: different styles, flavors, and brands.
My presumptions couldn't have been more off the mark. It took me ten minutes to locate the mixes on a dusty shelf above the potato starch, and there were only two kinds: Manischewitz Homestyle Potato Latke Mix and Gefen Potato Latke Pancake Mix with Onions.
Tiptoe-ing to reach them, I realized: no self-respecting bubbe would be caught dead with a store-bought latke mix. For the best selection, I shouldn't have gone to a kosher market. In order to properly evaluate the mixes I would have to make a control batch of from-scratch latkes.
I went to four different sources looking for the ultimate latke recipe: Joan Nathan's PBS show Jewish Cooking in America, Epicurious for a "Perfect Potato Pancakes" feature with recipes by Andrew Friedman, Jewish Holiday Cooking by Jayne Cohen, and The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking by Phyllis Glazer and Miriam Glazer.
The method in each recipe was the same: grate potatoes and onions, combine with beaten eggs and a bit of matzo meal or flour, and fry spoonfuls of the mixture in a skillet greased with vegetable oil. What varied were the amounts.
Some called for two eggs, some only one. One used a 1/4 cup of flour, another advocated omitting it all together. I decided to go with my feeble, half-Jewish instincts and settle on a ratio of two large potatoes, one medium onion, two eggs, and two tablespoons of flour. I must say my latkes were excellent: the edges were lacy and the golden-brown exterior was crispy. Inside, they were creamy and salty, with just a hint of onion flavor. I had to stop myself from gobbling up the whole batch.
With my control latkes taken care of, it was time to turn my attention to the mixes.
First up: the Manischewitz version. The mix had a flaky, shredded appearance, not unlike French's Potato Sticks. All I had to do was add 2 eggs and 1 cup of cold water, then let the mixture stand for a couple of minutes to thicken.
Then I fried heaping tablespoonfuls in a skillet until they were crusty and brown on both sides. The Manischewitz latkes were thicker and had a more uniform consistency than my lacy version, but they looked, if not homemade, at least passable.
The taste, however, was disappointing. The interior was gummy and the rehydrated potato flakes were chewy and tasted undercooked. They were also quite bland—miraculously (given the 600mg of sodium per serving), I felt that they needed salt.
On to the Gefen mix, which had a fine, powdery texture reminiscent of polenta. Per the box's instructions, I added 2 eggs and 2 cups of cold water, and then let the mixture stand for 10 minutes.
When I returned to the bowl, it had thickened into something that looked like oily applesauce. I spooned scoops of the batter into the hot skillet, where they spread and bubbled like traditional pancakes. When they were done, the Gefen latkes were as smooth as blinis or crepes.
They bore absolutely no resemblance to traditional versions—where were the shredded potatoes?
And the flavor was even worse than their looks: greasy, spongy, and tinny with salt (oddly, the amount of sodium was roughly equal to that of the Manischewitz mix). These potato pancakes were so bad, I wouldn't even serve them to most unknowing of goys—someone who had never spun a dreidel or been to a seventh grader's bar mitzvah.
In the end, I wouldn't recommend either the Manischewitz or the Gefen mix. Not that you were considering making latkes from a box, right?