For Hanukkah, Latkes

Jason Perlow started celebrating Hanukkah ahead of time this year. His early kick-off is to your benefit: Follow along with this step-by-step how-to, and make some flavorful potato pancakes for your own festivities. Republished here courtesy of Off the Broiler.

This last Sunday, my wife Rachel’s family got together and had a Hanukkah party a week early. We were given the task of making the latkes, the venerable Ashkenazi-Jewish pan-fried potato pancakes.

Although I tend to favor Sephardic-style cuisine, latkes are among my favorite things from Ashkenazi (European) Jewish culture, and I hold them in extremely high regard. Hanukkah isn’t a particularly important Jewish holiday, but I look forward to the annual latke frying ritual with great anticipation. I didn’t grow up on homemade latkes—my mother wasn’t much of a cook and she wouldn’t use oil of any kind in the house because she hated the smell of grease and fried food. Frankly, I can’t blame her. The act of frying latkes creates odors that will linger in your kitchen for several days, and even with the best ventilation, you'll have to air out your entire house to completely rid it of the powerful chickeny, potatoey, oniony odor. Don’t let this deter you, however—the rewards are well worth it.

There are certainly many recipes for making latkes out there, but the best latkes don’t come from recipes—we’ve always winged it at our house, but there are some good guidelines you’ll want to follow.

First of all, you want the big starchy kind of potatoes rather than the waxy kind or new potato kind. Yukon golds, white potatoes, great Eastern, Idaho russets—those are the kind you’re looking for to achieve latkevana.

For six people, an entire five-pound bag will suffice, and you’ll have latkes left over. You do want some left over for your private consumption later, right?

Next is the issue of the oil and frying medium. Get yourself a bottle or two of peanut oil. Only peanut oil will do. Nothing else.

Next, you’ll want schmaltz, or rendered poultry fat—as much as you can possibly get a hold of. Poultry fat can be purchased in the form of goose fat or duck fat from gourmet suppliers such as D’Artagnan, but the easiest and most gratifying way to get it is as a by-product of making chicken stock—the chicken fat, in the form of gelatin, rises to the top after the stock has been reduced and then chilled. This is then reserved and then melted in a pan, with as much of the residual water cooked out as possible (otherwise it spatters).

Once you have your melted, liquid schmaltz, combine this with the peanut oil in an approximate 1-1 ratio; it gives you the ideal cooking fat blend. (Note: You could go totally pareve and not use any schmaltz, but I think schmaltz is integral to the flavor, and I’m not Kosher observant, so I don’t have to worry about those issues.)

Now you’re going to want to cut up about six to eight big yellow, stinky onions (not the sweet, Vidalia kind) and begin frying them in pure poultry fat at medium-low heat until they become completely caramelized. This will take at least half an hour. The act of frying the onions in the poultry fat creates true schmaltz.

Next, you run your entire five-pound bag of potatoes through the shredder blades of your food processor. Do not remove the skins! Simply wash the potatoes and remove the yucky eye things with a paring knife before processing. In the olden days, in the shtetl, your bubbie would grate these by hand. After you’ve grated them, put them in a large colander over a big bowl, let them drain for about 15 minutes, and press out all the moisture you can into the bowl.

Pour out all the drained liquid into a big glass, and allow it to settle for about ten minutes. This allows the potato starch to settle to the bottom; we're going to reincorporate it into the latke mix. Pour off the potato water, leaving a small amount of potato starch at the bottom. Put it back into the bowl of shredded potatoes.

Optionally, to make a more cakey-textured latke, you can use mashed potatoes for up to 50 percent of the potato content, which you would add in and mix as the last step before frying. This gives you the "deli" style that you find in places like Katz's or the Carnegie.

Now, get a big bunch of scallions, as well as a couple of raw onions (let's say 3 to 6 uncooked onions, total). Here, I’ve used Texas onions, as they provide both the green part and the bulb part. Chop them just enough so they can be dumped into the food processor; mince and add them to your big colander of shredded potatoes.

Next, add two cups of matzo meal to the potato-onion mixure. If you don’t have matzo meal, just take a bunch of wafers out of a box of matzo and blitz them into a mealy consistency.

After adding the matzo meal, add six eggs and your now-caramelized onions. We’ve blitzed the matzos and the eggs and caramelized onions together in the food processor and have added them to the bowl in one step here. Mix well to integrate all components—you may need to use your hands. The mixture should be moist enough to scoop with a ice cream scoop. If it’s too dry and the first two latkes fall apart in the pan, add two more eggs. It may require some initial tweaking. Add salt and pepper to the mixture to taste.

Fry in cast-iron pans, as per the video above, using the 1-to-1 schmaltz and peanut-oil mixture, until golden brown on each side. Use enough oil to almost cover the latkes. If you're reserving these for the next day, cook them until three-quarters of the way through, place them in freezer bags, and refrigerate them for heating in the oven later. They also freeze nicely.

Let latkes drain on sheet pans, and then move to plates lined with paper towels.

Share and enjoy. Serve with fresh apple sauce and sour cream.