Stop, you’re pronouncing it wrong. It’s not LAT-keys, it’s not LAHT-kuhz. (I don’t care if a Polish person told you it’s the former, that person wasn’t Jewish, that pronunciation isn’t right.) It’s closest to LAHT-kiss.
Glad we got that out of the way. Last night was the first night of Chanukah (pronounced with a gutteral h like you have something stuck in your throat), and since I’m essentially non-observant but I like to mark the occasion, I made a small batch of latkes for dinner. Here’s the recipe.
A few notes:
1) we call these potato pancakes, but think of them as fritters. You want them fairly thin and crispy on the outside.
2) you can make these very easily in the food processor, just make sure to still drain the excess liquid and don’t grind the vegetables, just shred them
3) resist the urge to “modernize” these, or if you do, don’t call them latkes anymore. Ashkenazi food is simple and, yes, a little bland. This is 19th century peasant food from Eastern Europe and we should respect that without having to make it of the moment. Some additions will make these almost inedible – black pepper, garlic, or anything spicy will turn them bitter, non root vegetables will make them watery. You could do these with sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, turnips, or radishes, but they’ll taste pretty different. When it comes to accompaniments, I’m a purist and prefer applesauce, but sour cream is also traditional and eggs or lox are really good – I also think a thick hot sauce like Sriracha would be great.
4) the best way to eat these is in the company of other people, everyone standing around and grabbing hot latkes as they come out of the pan. Get someone to help you peel the potatoes and someone else to help with the frying. While you’re at it, play some dreidel, sing some songs about freedom and oppression, and maybe light some candles. If you get a bunch of small dreidels, it’s fun to challenge yourself to see how many you can keep spinning at once, or trying to spin them upside down. The dreidel game is a betting game. Everyone puts something into the pot and then takes turns spinning. The dreidel has four sides, each with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, that signifies one word of the phrase “Nes Gadol Haya Sham” or “a great miracle happened there”. You can use the names of the letters to remember what the rules are. If the dreidel lands on Nun you get none (from the pot); of it lands on Gimmel it’s a gimme (you get the whole pot); if it lands on Hay you get half; and if it lands on Shin you get shit (you have to put everything you have into the pot). You play until someone gets annoyed and quits.
Latkes (makes 7-10, serves 2-3 people)
Peel 2 large russet potatoes and halve and remove the skin from one medium yellow onion. Grate the vegetables into a strainer set over a large bowl (if increasing the recipe, do this in batches). Or, if using a food processor, cut the vegetables into very large pieces and feed into the machine with the large grating disk, then transfer to a strainer. Squeeze out the vegetables until they don’t feel watery, but not so much that they are completely dry. Dump out the water, then beat one egg into the bowl with a teaspoon of salt. Add in the grated vegetables and fold to thoroughly coat them in the egg. Then sprinkle over 1/4 – 1/3 cup flour, folding to coat. The mixture should look slightly moist – neither soupy (you didn’t drain enough liquid) nor dry (too much flour). As it sits, more liquid will come out – just stir everything to redistribute it.
In a large skillet, heat about 1/4″ of vegetable oil until it shimmers. You can drop in a piece of potato to test – it should sizzle and produce a lot of bubbles, but not crackle and pop wildly. Use a slotted spoon to dish out the batter, dropping a heaping spoonful in, spaced a little bit apart so the oil stays hot. In a 12″ skillet I can cook 3 at a time. When you drop in the batter, smoosh it down a little to spread it out into an even and fairly thin layer. This ensures that it’s cooked fully in the middle and helps the edges get crispy. It will look like a loose collection of potato shreds, but the egg, flour, and potato starch help bind everything together. When edges are brown, use a fish spatula to check that the bottom is fully browned, then flip, about 3 minutes per side. Remove to a plate lined with paper towels (or a cooling rack with something underneath to catch the oil if you’re fancy). As the batter sits it will get more watery – just let some of the water fall through the spoon and back into the bowl so that it doesn’t splatter too much when it hits the oil. Pay attention to the temperature and adjust up or down if they start cooking too quickly or aren’t constantly producing bubbles. Let them cool for a minute before eating.