by Jill Warren Lucas
Passover is the Jewish holiday known for its Four Questions, but Hanukkah has a few of its own, and they are serious enough to tear families asunder at a time of togetherness.
Apple sauce or sour cream? Shredded or mashed potatoes? Potatoes or not potatoes? What about sweet potatoes, roasted beets, carrots or zucchini?
The annual obsession to reinvent the traditional latke – broadly defined as a potato pancake – is a hot topic for culinary magazines, blogs and family dinner tables. The December issue of Bon Appetit, for example, features Celery Root and Mushroom Latkes with Onion Applesauce.
“Wow. It sounds kind of wonderful,” said Marcie Cohen Ferris, UNC Associate Professor of American Studies and author of Matzoh Ball Gumbo (UNC Press). “I might make it, but not at Hanukkah. I’m kind of a traditionalist. If I made that for family, it would be like, ‘What’s wrong with the latkes?’”
Familiar tastes and smells are essential aspects of family traditions, Ferris said, and the latkes one savored in childhood tend to be the same sort they later serve as adults. While delicious any time of the year, these bites of golden-fried goodness will return to tables the world over when the eight-day celebration begins at sundown on Dec. 20.
Just as the Jewish tribes scattered, latke recipes traveled the globe and generated considerable variation. The Sydney, Australia-based blog Monday Morning Cooking Club last week posted a version elegantly topped with crème fraiche, smoked salmon and salmon roe. On Food52, the online food community led by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, posts range from more humble, traditional options to Korean Latkes and Methodist Latkes. Even Emeril Lagasse has a latke recipe posted on his website, and it’s surprisingly Bam!-free.
Still, some recipe mishigas leaves one scratching one's head. Southern Living, hardly the bible of Jewish cookery, this year suggests a sweet potato version that’s a close cousin to the one favored by Ferris and featured below. But in past years, it promoted ones with savory sides of salmon-olive or lemon-date “relish.” Go figure.
Then there are those who favor the packaged mixes, such as the ubiquitous Streits or Manischewitz boxes that appear in stores this time of year. “I’ve never had a box-mix latke,” Ferris said. “Holidays should make you slow down a little and enjoy things. It really doesn’t take much more effort to make them from scratch.”
Alan Adler of Streits, whose wife uses the family brand, said the company introduced its popular potato pancake mix in the late 1950s or early 60s – the same era in which Peg Bracken of “The ‘I Hate to Cook’ Book” fame became a pitchwoman for Bird’s Eye frozen vegetables. Such products were part of a new convenience marketing concept that encouraged tired housewives to embrace pre-packed products as a means to escape the drudgery of daily cooking. Ferris decries the era for “de-skilling women” and minimizing the inherent health benefits of fresh food.
So at Hanukkah, should Jews tear open a box of mix, visit the frozen aisle at Trader Joe or roll up their sleeves, pour forth the oil and scrape their knuckles on rough box graters? Or, to put it another way: What Would Judah Maccabee Eat?
It's a question that may stump many a rabbi or bubbe, but not Ferris. It’s all good, she said, so long as you start with local and seasonal ingredients.
“I think my favorite, because we live in North Carolina, is the sweet potato latke,” said Ferris, acknowledging North Carolina’s time-honored status as the national leader in production of sweet potatoes. “And I like them with applesauce and sour cream.”
Ferris sometimes bakes her latkes in a super-heated cast iron skillet, “but this time of year you really need to cook them in oil.” Oil is meant to recall the time when the Jews reclaimed their temple from invading Syrians and rededicated it by lighting the one remaining vial of oil that should have lasted a single day. Miraculously, it burned for eight days and nights, allowing the ancients to make more – and us moderns to fry these crispy nuggets without guilt.
Currently on sabbatical to write The Edible South, which traces the historical basis of Southern foods, Ferris said she discovered little variation in latke recipes when conducting research for Matzoh Ball Gumbo.
“There is an American trend of adding whatever vegetable is on hand – kale, zucchini, carrots – and that’s certainly true in the South,” she said. “Southern cooks also tend to pep them up a bit. It wouldn’t be unusual to find Cajun spices in latkes made in New Orleans.”
If you really want to be Southern, she added, “You could run over to the Krispy Kreme and get some jelly doughnuts,” apparently giving the OK to skip making scratch sufganiyot so long as you keep things ‘old-school’ with your latkes.
No matter what recipe you choose, the bottom line for Ferris is that making latkes is a great excuse for a party. “Whether you’re making them for children or adults, it’s all about having a good time,” she said. “It’s a process, and that’s a wonderful ritual.”
North Carolina Sweet Potato Latkes with Apples
Recipe by Miriam Rubin, provided by Marcie Cohen Ferris
1½ pounds sweet potatoes (about 3 medium), peeled
1 large Granny Smith or Honey Crisp apple, unpeeled, cut into quarters and cored
1 large carrot, peeled (optional)
3 scallions, thinly sliced
4 large eggs
¾ cup matzoh meal or all-purpose flour
1 tsp. kosher salt
¾ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
Canola oil for frying
Fit a food processor with the grating/shredding blade. Cut the sweet potatoes into pieces that will fit in the food processor's feed tube. Using the food processor (or by hand, with the coarse side of a box grater), coarsely shred sweet potatoes and apple – and carrot, if using.
Transfer to a large bowl. Add the scallions, eggs, matzoh meal, salt and pepper. Mix well with your hands, until mixture is cohesive. Using a rough ¼-cup mixture for each, make 2½-to 3-inch patties, shaping them firmly yet gently, so they don't compact too much, yet don't fall apart. Place patties on a sheet of foil or baking sheet. Heat the oven to 200°F to keep latkes warm.
In a large, heavy skillet over medium heat, warm 3 tbps. oil until hot. Add 4 to 5 latkes; don't crowd the pan, and cook, turning once or twice, until nicely golden and crisp on both sides. (Watch carefully as these scorch easily.) Transfer cooked latkes to paper towel to drain, and then transfer to a platter to keep warm in the oven. Repeat frying latkes, adding more oil to pan as needed. Serve warm.
Makes 20 to 22 latkes.
Jill Warren Lucas, a member of CHOPNC, blogs at Eating My Words. Follow her at @jwlucasnc.