Serious Entertaining: How to Host a Latke Party
I am firmly of the belief that there is no greater party than a latke party. Greasy crispy latkes are the perfect party food, and Hanukkah is the perfect party holiday.* If you took last year's comprehensive guide to making latkes to heart, you may be ready to host one of your own. Here's how.
* Okay, Purim also follows the model of "they tried to kill us, they didn't, let's eat and get wasted," but come on. Fried potatoes and doughnuts.
I'll admit: latkes are the perfect party food except that you can't make them ahead of time. Your latke lifetime window is about two hours at the most, and by then they're mostly cold anyway—and a trip through the oven to reheat them will soften the crisp edges you've worked so hard for.
Nor can you really make the batter ahead of time. Potatoes oxidize and turn brown fast, making for unattractive pancakes. And if you've salted your batter and let it sit, the salt will pull moisture out of your potatoes and onions, leaving you with soggy latkes. And nobody wants soggy latkes.
So the first real rule of a latke party is this: accept you will be in the kitchen a fair amount during the party. But hey, there's no reason the rest of the party can't join you there.
Here's what you can do ahead of time:
- Chop/grate your onions. I prefer larger chunks of chopped onion, but if you like the more evenly dispersed grated onion, line a colander with cheesecloth and drain the grated onions of excess water.
- Remove eggs from fridge. Mixing latke batter with eggs straight from the fridge means icy fingers—no fun. Let your eggs come to room temperature for a couple hours.
- Measure your matzo meal/flour. Every latke recipe will tell you to adjust your starchy binder as needed, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't measure beforehand. My recipe calls for 1 1/2 cups; I'll usually measure out two. It's easier to return extra matzo meal to the box when your hands are clean.
- Wash your potatoes. Potato skins contribute flavor and texture to latkes, so leave them on! But giving them a good scrubbing beforehand will cut down on prep time.
- Set aside space to mix your latke batter and a separate area to drain the fried ones. Paper towels on a cookie sheet work just fine.
- Have a drink. You have a long, greasy, starch-spackled night ahead of you, but it'll all be fun. Time to relax.
You can, if you want, shred or grate your potatoes ahead of time and keep them submerged underwater. This will keep them from oxidizing, but I never bother. The real time-suck in making latkes comes from straining the potatoes, which I do by wrapping a small bunch in cheesecloth, tying the cloth's corners around a wooden spoon, and twisting the bundle round and round until pressure forces out the water. You can only do that in small batches, so I don't mind shredding as I go.
Identify a Helper
Once you get to latke making, your hands are going to get starchy and sticky. That's where having a friend comes in: someone to shred potatoes while you strain, to pass you ingredients while you're mixing, to keep the hungry hordes at bay by sending your freshly fried latkes out to a grateful world.
Your helper can be anyone with a modicum of handiness, as none of this work is particularly hard. In fact, you may want to bias against those with strong kitchen experience. No two people make latkes alike, and there's no reason you should have to put up with someone else criticizing your technique. For this reason my mother and I cannot make latkes together.
My grandmother, who was every inch as fabulous as her pearls, posh Upper West Side apartment, and schmaltz-stained Silver Palate cookbook would suggest, served latkes as a side to brisket. This is less difficult than it sounds, since brisket tastes best the next day anyway, and all you need to do day-of is heat it up in the oven you're not using for latkes.
But I don't own pearls, my 70s-tastic Queens apartment could only be called posh in the most ironic way, and frankly I'm not half the cook grandma Dorothy ever was. So at my latke parties, latkes are the meal. All else is secondary, and I've never heard a single complaint.
That said, you'll want some sides. For starters, make your own applesauce. All it takes is good apples, a pinch salt, and twenty minutes of mostly passive time for something that'll taste way better than anything from a jar.
Kick the party off with a vegetable platter. Your guests will appreciate some crisp, clean veggies, and it's easy for you. To really get them hungry, whip up a quick pickle or two in the days leading up to the party.
Salads also lighten up the meal, and can be made ahead of time to toss with dressing right before eating. The combination of roast beets and eggs feels appropriate for a latke-filled evening; arugula, fennel, and orange is an even brighter seasonally appropriate idea. If you use a food processor to shred your potatoes, put it to work for this grated carrot and mint salad, too.
Dress Up Your Latkes
Less a side and more a latke addition, but an easy way to make potato pancakes feel more meal-like. If you have a friend with some money who wants to make a contribution, ask them to bring some caviar, which you can spoon on your latkes with some crème fraîche in lieu of sour cream. Or pull a Ben Fishner and top your pancakes with sour cream and lox.
Go Ahead, Make the Brisket
If you're hosting a dairy-only party, I can't think of a better post-latke dessert than pavlova topped with whatever fruit is in season. Diced pears and persimmons are nice this time of year, especially when drizzled with pomegranate molasses or apple cider cooked down to a syrup. All of the components can be made ahead of time and assembled right before serving.
Going the meat-only route? Okay: honey cake. Yeah it's a Rosh Hashanah thing, but good honey cake should be celebrated more than once a year. And when you surprise your guests with an actually good honey cake? You'll be their new golden boy/shayna maidel.
Hey, What About Doughnuts?
I know sufganyot are the traditional post-latke treat, but I have never once said to myself after stuffing my face with fried potatoes, I could really go for a doughnut right now. Plus doughnuts mean more frying, also last-minute, something I recommend all but the most obsessive homemakers avoid.
But hey, it's your party. You want doughnuts? Here are eleven worthy options for your table.
I have long endured eating latkes with red wine, but no more! Beer may be the fried potato drink of choice, but it's easier to convince your guests to go for sparkling wine instead. Want cocktails? Applejack drinks just taste right this time of year. Just be sure to make them in batches.