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Latkes

Latkes


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It is a long held tradition to eat fried foods on Hanukkah, the most popular of which are fried potato pancakes known as latkes

Ingredients

  • 1 pound potatoes, grated (455 grams)
  • 1 medium onion, chopped or grated
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour or matzo meal (65 grams)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • oil

Instructions

  1. Place the grated potatoes in a colander. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit for half an hour.
  2. Strain strain the liquid that has accumulated. Cheese cloth works well for this.
  3. Move the potatoes in a mixing bowl. Add onions, eggs, flour or matzo meal, and salt. Mix until everything is well incorporated.
  4. Add 1/4 inch or ½ centimeter of oil and heat in a frying pan.
  5. Add the potato mixture to the frying pan at the same size you want your latkes and ½ inch or 1 centimeter high. It should be about half the height of the latkes.
  6. Fry until crispy. Flip and repeat. If you need to add more oil, let it heat before making more latkes.
  7. Serve with sour cream, cottage cheese, applesauce, or sugar.

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I love to cook and bake but I hate when things are overly complicated so I promise to keep it simple :)


Behind the Hanukkah tradition of latkes

After the second or two it takes to light a Hanukkah candle, what is the logical thing to do next? Eat &ndash latkes, of course! Crispy, fried, slightly oniony potato pancakes with decadent (that's a euphemism for fattening) toppings.

Why latkes? The simple answer is that they're meant to remind Jews of the miracle of the oil associated with Hanukkah. But this story is anything but simple.

In 164 BCE, a devout Jew who called himself Judah Maccabee and his followers overthrew the Syrian Greek king who was trying to impose Greek customs and religion on the people of Israel. Hanukkah means "dedication."

"It commemorates the victory or the Maccabees, who retook the temple," said Jayne Cohen, a Jewish food historian and cookbook writer. "And when they re-sanctified the temple and cleaned everything, they needed ritual oil for the candelabra, and the only ritual oil that was pure enough was only enough to last for one day, according to the story."

During the Jewish holiday, eating crispy, fried, slightly oniony potato pancakes represents perseverance, and a little bit of magic.

But miraculously it lasted eight days. Centuries after the fact, Jews were told to celebrate by eating foods cooked in oil. But again, why latkes?

Enter Judith. "Judith was, according to all accounts, this beautiful widow," said Cohen. "And she set out to seduce Holofernes, who was holding the town of Bethulia under siege. And according to her plan, she had these very salty pancakes, levivot, and filled them with a salty cheese. And Holofernes, who intended to seduce or rape her, kept eating these. And he became so thirsty that he just drank incredible quantities of wine, until he passed out &ndash at which point this beautiful widow chopped off his head!"

Food & Wine

Correspondent Martha Teichner asked, "So, how does Judith get connected with Hanukkah?"

"That's where the bizarre part comes in," said Cohen. "Nobody is actually sure how the two became conflated."

But they did, and by the Middle Ages Jews in Italy were eating cheese pancakes during Hanukkah.

Now we come to the potato: Potatoes were cheap, and thanks to poverty among Eastern European Jews, potatoes became the key ingredient in latkes (Yiddish for pancakes).

Niki Russ Federman is a fourth-generation owner of Russ & Daughters in New York City. For 105 years, her family's business has been Jewish food. When asked by Teichner how many latkes they prepare, Federman replied, "On just a normal day, when there's no holiday, we make a thousand a day. And then during Hanukkah, we'll make 5,000 a day."

The latkes are made in small batches, by hand. "You commune with the ancestors when you do this," Federman said.

If there's a secret to getting latkes right, it's straining out extra liquid.

The mixture is formed into patties, which are first fried on the griddle, then deep fried in oil (they use canola oil at Russ & Daughters).

CBS News

They're meant to be eaten crispy and warm.

"The story of Hanukkah and the latkes is one of perseverance and a little bit of magic and that's a universal story," Federman said.

Which is how the Brooklyn Museum justifies certain liberties taken by chefs participating in its annual latke festival. Have you ever heard of Vietnamese latkes? Or how about Korean sweet potato latkes?

More than two dozen chefs presented their takes on latkes at the 11th Annual Latke Festival, held this year at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City.

Hanukkah is considered a minor holiday for Jews, but it's got this going for it: The Talmud, Judaism's book of laws, decrees that during Hanukkah there is to be no grieving, and no fasting. No problem, if the latkes are good and plentiful.


Flat as a Pancake? Not Likely

The defining characteristic of the entire vast family of pancakes, however—from crepe to griddlecake, blini, bannock, and beyond—is flatness. “Flat as a pancake,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has been a catchphrase since at least 1611. Usually it’s applied disparagingly to flat-chested women or to featureless level terrain, such as that of Poland, the glacial plains of Canada, and the state of Kansas.

In 2003, this recurrent comparison led a trio of geographers with senses of humor—after a dullish trip across the American Midwest—to attempt to determine the relative flatnesses of pancakes and Kansas. They constructed a topographic profile of a representative pancake—bought from the local International House of Pancakes—using digital imaging processing and a confocal laser microscope, and a similar profile of Kansas, using data from the United States Geological Survey. The tongue-in-cheek results, published in the Annals of Improbable Research, showed that though pancakes are flat, Kansas is even flatter. Where, mathematically, a value of 1.000 indicates perfect tabletop flatness, Kansas scored a practically horizontal 0.9997. The pancake, in contrast, scored a relatively lumpy 0.957.

In March of this year, Kansan geographers Jerome Dobson and Joshua Campbell—publishing in the wholly reputable Geographical Review – also took on pancakes, pointing out defensively that, while Kansas may be flatter than a pancake, it’s not alone. In fact, there are several states that are even flatter. Their calculations showed that, of the continental states, flattest of the flat is Florida, followed by Illinois, North Dakota, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Delaware. (Least pancake-like: Wyoming, West Virginia, New Hampshire, and Vermont.)

As all researchers hasten to point out, though, the pancake comparison simply isn’t fair. Blow a pancake up to the size of—say, Kansas—and you’ll end up with a fried expanse of ferociously rugged terrain, pock-marked with craters and canyons, studded with Everest-sized air bubbles. Compared to a Kansas-sized pancake—well, practically everything is flat.


When Family Lore is Fueled by Latkes

Hanukkah celebrates resiliency—something we’ve all been tapping into this year. It also means latkes. Love ’em, hate ’em, agree or disagree about what goes on ’em, the ritual and aroma and taste of these potato pancakes are part of what makes Hanukkah what it is. Emily Hope Dobkin, the founder of Betterish, shares a whole latke love.

The Dobkin family pose during the 1987 Hanukkah gathering.

Am I a bad Jew if I confess I don’t actually love latkes?

Here’s what I do love in regards to latkes: the sound of the oil sizzling in the pan, the scrappy shreds of potatoes that litter the kitchen sink in the process, the strong opinions on how to top latkes (generally: applesauce vs. sour cream). And strangely, I appreciate the smell of those fried potato pancakes clinging to my clothes the day after a big Latkefest.

Mainly because it transports me to tradition, ritual, and family connection. And that’s incredibly comforting, especially during a year when discomfort, distance, and disconnect have loomed indefinitely.

Zoom screenshot from Passover 2020

I used to think the Jewish holidays were about the food with the bonus of some great stories. But I’ve recently reflected that it’s really that food is a vehicle that brings us to gather together, and that the stories that unfold bond us to our family roots and the generations that came before us.

Passover 2020 was my family’s Zoom premiere. By that I mean it was the first time my extended family gathered in a virtual setting. It was chaotic, cozy, and took my 89-year-old Mommom Ray twenty-three minutes to get on with audio and video, but she got on, and has been my-super-tech-savvy Grandmother on Zoom ever since.

The "Kids' Table" group photograph during Passover in 1998.

As I was prepping the matzah ball soup pre-Passover Zoom, the scent of the carrots and dill softening in the chicken broth instantly flooded my memory of Mommom Ray’s kitchen on 8907 Montgomery Avenue in Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia. This was the place where my family would come together for nearly every Jewish holiday and Shabbat circa 1980s–early 2000s. It’s where the large round dining room table gradually extended into the living room, with the rectangular kitchen table being added on for each holiday, officially becoming the “Kids’ Table.” From 1980–1992, the collection of cousins at the kids' table grew with more chairs and high chairs, all amounting to a rather squished dining situation. We’d make fun of each other, annoy each other, fight over challah bread and Aunt Jane’s cookies, but we loved it all the same. I’d tune into the murmurs of the “Grown-Ups” reminiscing about holiday meals that came before us. The conversations that used to end with letters read aloud in Yiddish from our family in Soviet Russia, weekend sleepovers my Dad and his cousins spent pillow-fighting in an old dusty attic on the family farm, and the countless scars that still adorn my Uncle’s knees and elbows from climbing trees and encountering the resident wasps.

The "Kids' Table" at Passover in 1997.

These became my personal glimpses into my family’s past, and often I learned through these recollections the stories of what shaped my family’s foundation here in America. And often all of which were fueled by latkes, apple sauces and/or sour cream.

As we’ve all grown up and gotten older, we’ve all spread out across the country. The Kids’ Table has actually disappeared, and the table settings have become fewer and fewer throughout the years. Though it doesn’t sound ideal, it’s a major silver lining of family Zoom gatherings: we’ve truly been able to all gather in the same “room” for the first time in several years.

As summer 2020 was winding down and it was clear we’d be spending the Jewish High Holy days apart, my cousin and I thought of a way to feel something better: betterish togetherish, as I like to call it. We decided if we can’t physically be together, might as well get our kitchens smelling like we are, right?

Compiling a family cookbook seemed daunting, so we’ve gone the bite-sized route: creating mini recipe zines.

Emily's zine titled "Rockin' with the Dobkins, Kitchen Style: A Series of Recipes Vol 1: High Holy Days."

My cousin (who is based in Philadelphia, where the majority of my family is located) started gathering the recipes, and then I compiled them into the mini zine format: cutting, pasting, constructing and making copies tended to with much craft and care, followed by mailing them all out.

Volume I was for the High Holy days.
Volume II was for Thanksgiving (yes, I know not technically a Jewish holiday, but if there’s food involved, my family gathers).
I’m currently wrapping up Volume III: Hanukkah. Hanukkah will include Mommom Ray’s 1890 Chicken, Aunt Jane’s Latkes, Cousin Em’s Easy Apple Sauce, Aunt Ceil’s Sweet & Sour Meatballs, and Aunt Jane’s Star Sugar Cookies (Aunt Jane is a pastry chef—we’re lucky for endless top notch sweetness).

What’s been great about the mini recipe zine format:
· They are clearly categorized by holiday and less overwhelming than a cookbook with only 5-6 recipes per volume.
· They are super easy to mail: one regular-sized envelope, one stamp.
· They are pocket-sized. Have a lot of books on your shelves? I keep mine pinned by a magnet on my fridge.

Hanukkah celebrates the oil that lasted eight days and ultimately commemorates resiliency—something many of us have been tapping into this year. It further offers the opportunity to remind us that just as a small quantity of oil fueled a miracle of light for eight nights, we too can find ways to shine in this dark period.

These recipe zines have become our little light in the darkness. How will you bring a little light into the darkness this holiday season?

Interested in making your own recipe zine? Sign up for a virtual zine workshop with Emily in 2021 here or let Emily make a bundle of personalized zines for you & yours here.


More from The Colorado Magazine

Kitchen Table History, Even When We’re at Different Tables While our holidays this year may be physically distant, we can still find ways—via phone or Zoom—to connect through reminiscing and stories. This actually feels even more important this year if you know elders who are isolating and alone.

Trinidad’s Temple Aaron Looks to the Past to Secure Its Future In the spirit of renewal and perseverance, the people of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico have joined together to ensure a future for Trinidad’s Temple Aaron.

Colorado Is My Classroom More than a century ago, open-air classrooms had a moment in response to another pandemic. Then it was tuberculosis, another era-defining airborne pathogen that attacked the respiratory system. And the results were encouraging. Could fresh air be part of the solution to school in the time of coronavirus?


Explore the Delectable History of Fried Potatoes

We know that French fries come from a French-speaking country, but their exact origin is unclear. The Belgians claim they first fried potatoes cut into the shape of fish when the river Meuse froze over in the 17th century, preventing them from catching real seafood. According to the French, fried potato wedges didn't appear until Parisian street vendors starting selling them 100 years later in the 18th century. The true story is still up for debate, but the passion people have for this potato product is undeniable.

In the latest episode of Food History, host Justin Dodd looks at the crispy, crunchy world of deep-fried potatoes. A French fry is just one of the many forms the food group can take. The video also explores the stories behind tater tots, hash browns, latkes, and potato chips.

Fried potatoes have been present for many important moments in culinary history, from early White House dinners to the rise of fast food. If you're interested in learning more about the classic side dish, grab some ketchup (or malt vinegar, or mayo, depending on which part of the world you're in) and watch the video below.

Hungry for more Food History? You can catch the latest episodes by subscribing to the Mental Floss YouTube channel.


What Are Latkes?

If you’re familiar with latkes as they are today, chances are that you might describe them as “potato pancakes.” And yes, you’d be partially correct.

It turns out, however, that the origin of the latke as Hanukkah food was far different as we know it today. According to Jewish food blogger Tori Avey, the notion of the latke – or pancake – only goes back as far as the 14th century… in Italy. It was an Italian Rabbi Kalonymus ben Kalonymus who made one of the first recorded associations of pancake type food to Hanukkah.

Potatoes themselves weren’t key ingredients in latkes until as late as the 19th century either! The original latkes from Kalonymus’s time appear to have been made with a base of ricotta cheese, not potatoes. It wasn’t until the 19th century when potatoes were so readily available across Europe that the idea of a potato latke came en vogue.

There is no real statute, however, that latkes have to be made with potato. If you’d like, shredded vegetables and cheese latkes can be just as grand… provided you fry them in olive oil.


The History of Latkes

At Zingerman’s, we love learning about the history behind our favorite traditional foods, and that includes latkes! Today, they are a staple at any Hanukkah celebration.

Hanukkah, an eight-day Jewish holiday also known as the “Festival of Lights,” celebrates the rededication of the second Holy Temple of Jerusalem. This rededication took place upon its return to Jewish control following the successful Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire in the 2nd century B.C.E.

Part of the rededication of the temple included rebuilding its altar and lighting its menorah. Upon wresting control of the temple, there was only enough ritual oil to keep the menorah alight for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted eight days, coincidentally the exact amount of time it took for them to make more. Today, this miracle of oil is celebrated with the eight-day celebration of lighting of the menorah, games, gifts and traditional Hanukkah foods fried in oil – like latkes!

As our friend Joan Nathan, queen of American Jewish cooking, put it in the New York Times,

“The point of latkes at Hanukkah is not the potato but the oil. What matters is the recounting of the miracle of one night’s oil lasting eight nights in the temple over 2,000 years ago.”

While potato latkes are a fixture in today’s Hanukkah celebrations, they were first spotted in historical texts within the story of Judith, but they were made of cheese! Judith was a Jewish heroine who defeated Holofernes, the Assyrian army’s general, after feeding him salty, ricotta pancakes. Some believe Judith’s act of bravery took place during the same Maccabean revolt that preceded the miracle of Hanukkah, but others believe they took place hundreds of years apart. Either way, it was Judith who first introduced salty, fried pancakes.

But wait, why are the latkes we know and love today made of potatoes, not from the cheese of Judith’s story? Well, the birth of the potato latke, and evolution of the cheese latke, ultimately happened in response to the mass planting of potatoes that took place in Poland and Ukraine. As a result, the majority of latkes today are made from potatoes, but it’s worth noting, they can be made using shredded vegetables or like Judith’s recipe, with cheese!

Another evolution of the latke over time is the fat they’re cooked in. While it’s symbolic and traditional to cook latkes in oil, schmaltz rendered from chickens, geese, or beef was a common cooking fat when olive oil wasn’t available.


What are Latkes? (with pictures)

Latkes, or potato pancakes, are a traditional Jewish dish, often served during Hanukkah. They have gained popularity as a Hanukkah dish because they are fried in oil, commemorating the oil that miraculously provided light for eight days. Luckily, Jewish restaurants and delis frequently serve latkes year round, so the dish can be enjoyed at any season. They are also celebrated as the means by which Judith of Holofernes was able to put the Assyrian leader into a deep sleep, and thus was able to behead him. The Assyrians ended their siege because of the death of their leader.

Naturally, latkes could not have been composed of potatoes in ancient times, as potatoes are a New World food. Instead, it is thought that they were made of grated cheese bound with a bit of egg, and then fried. A salty cake such as this, along with an ample supply of wine, would certainly have caused any man, Assyrian or otherwise, to feel sleepy.

Some traditionalists argue that at Hanukkah, cheese and not potato latkes should be served. However, the introduction of the potato to Europe forever changed the dish. Most often, ancient recipes containing cheese are now forsaken in preference to those established in the 18th century.

The name is of Yiddish origin, and may have come from either Germany or Russia. As Jews immigrated to the US, so did the tradition of preparing latkes. Many families now prepare these pancakes from recipes over 100 years old. Therefore, even though they are not prepared as in ancient times, potato latkes have a rich history as well.

Typically, latkes are prepared by grating raw potatoes, usually russets as they have a high starch value. Eggs, salt, and sometimes a bit of green onion are added to the potatoes and lightly mixed. The batter may sit in the refrigerator for a while to allow the starch and eggs to hold the ingredients together. Next, the mix is patted into patties, usually approximately 2 inches (5.08 cm) in diameter. There are those who prepare larger latkes, but these can sometimes fall apart during the cooking and turning process, so smaller cakes may be a good choice for beginners.

Once formed, the latkes are fried in heated oil until they are golden brown on each side. The pancakes may then be patted dry to remove excess oil. They are usually served hot, and may be accompanied with both applesauce and sour cream. Hot latkes are preferable to cooled pancakes, as cooler pancakes will taste oilier.

Though bound in tradition, there are newer recipes that suggest a number of additions to the latkes. Chefs have prepared them by adding grated carrots, ginger, or a mixture of sweet and savory spices. Sweet latkes with vanilla and cinnamon make an appealing dessert. However prepared, these crunchy pancakes are a delicious connection to the past.

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent DelightedCooking contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent DelightedCooking contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.


The Little-Known Story Behind the Latke

Nobody really knows what the Maccabees ate during that first Chanukah, but one thing is certain—it wasn’t potato latkes. Though the custom of eating oily foods to evoke the miracle of the oil dates back millennia—in a ninth-century letter, Maimon, the Rambam’s father, exhorted his community to take this practice seriously—it would take several more centuries for the latke to emerge as the oily food of choice. The fabled Chanukah fritter celebrated in story and song (the classic Yiddish Chanukah Song “Chanukah, oh Chanukah, a yontif, a sheina” describes the joys of eating latkes) is a relative latecomer to the Jewish table, dating only to the nineteenth century.

Potatoes were unknown in Europe until 1537, when Spanish forces of conquistador Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada landed in what is now Colombia to search for gold. Instead, they found potatoes. Although the Incans prized potatoes as a delicacy, the first potatoes to be planted in Europe were watery and bitter, and most people didn’t want to eat them.

It was Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, a French scientist who was interred in a Bavarian prison camp, who eventually popularized the potato throughout Europe. Upon his release, Parmentier became a one-man public relations agency for the vegetable that kept him alive for the duration of his imprisonment. Because of his efforts, potatoes eventually caught on in France and later in Eastern Europe, which brings us back to latkes.

In the late eighteenth century, Eastern Europe was plagued by repeated crop failures. To stave off massive starvation, the Russian Empress Catherine the Great ordered farmers to plant potatoes instead of grain because potatoes grow more quickly and can survive a variety of weather conditions.

Czar Nicholas I enforced the decree with greater vigor and by 1850, the potato was entrenched in Eastern Europe.

The Jews, who were, for the most part, poor and hungry, were enthralled by the new vegetable. In the shtetl, potato was on the menu two or three times a day—a diet commemorated in the Yiddish children’s ditty “Sunday, potatoes Monday, potatoes Tuesday, potatoes . . . Shabbos, potato kugel.”

For the Jews of Eastern Europe, the potato was, quite literally, a godsend. Nurtured by the potato, which is not only rich in starch but contains every other essential vitamin and mineral except calcium, vitamin A and vitamin D, the Jewish population exploded in Eastern Europe.

In 1825 there were 1.6 million Jews in the area that is now Russia and Poland. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were over five million. Naturally, Jews became masters of potato cookery, developing a variety of potato-based dishes including the much beloved Chanukah fritter, or the latke, whose name in Yiddish means “little oily.”

According to food historian Gil Marks, the first latkes, called kartoffelpfannkuchen, were fashioned from coarse potatoes fried in schmaltz (chicken fat). Eventually the name was changed to kartoffel latke and finally to just plain latke. The popular latke recipe we are all familiar with today—grated potatoes bound together with onions, eggs and matzo meal—emerged.

By the end of the nineteenth century, immigrants brought the recipe to the United States. One of the earliest American Jewish cookbooks, Aunt Babette’s Cookbook: Foreign and Domestic Recipes for the Household, published in Cincinnati in 1889, includes a latke recipe, as does the 1903 Settlement Cook Book. By the 1930s, food scientists were figuring out ways to streamline latke preparation, and Aunt Jemima, the pancake mix brand, even marketed a latke mix. In our own times, foodies have played with the original recipe to create gourmet variations using ingredients like broccoli, basil, feta cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. Though some of these newfangled latkes are quite delicious, nothing beats old-fashioned potato latkes sizzling in the frying pan as the candles burn on Chanukah night.

Photo: Yosef Gottleib/Kuvien Images

Potato Latkes
1 small onion
4 large potatoes
2 eggs
½ cup matzo meal
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
Oil for frying

Grate together onion, potatoes, eggs and matzo meal. Add black pepper and salt.

Heat oil in heavy-bottomed skillet. Make sure entire skillet is covered with oil ¼ inch or more deep. Drop in a tiny bit of batter. If it browns, you’re ready to fry. Spoon in latkes. Don’t crowd.

Fry three minutes on each side. Remove, place on paper towel to drain excess oil and serve immediately.

You can reheat in the oven on low and serve later, but nothing tastes as good as fresh latkes.

Safety note: turn frying pan handles inward and never leave a frying pan full of hot oil alone, even for a minute.

Carol Green Ungar is a full-time mother and freelance writer living in Israel. Her work has appeared in the Jewish Week in New York, Tablet, the Jerusalem Post and other publications.



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