Latkes, a last tether to tradition
Every year, in the winter time, Ashkenazi Jewish families around the world sit down to enjoy heaping plates of latkes: essentially, fried potato pancakes, traditionally prepared to celebrate Hanukkah. Apple sauce and sour cream are spooned; candles are lit; wine is drunk, and stories of ancient struggle and survival are told.
Latkes, to me, are a precarious — if delicious and crispy — tether to these old traditions, largely lost in my family. Latkes are stumbling over the blessing as I light a menorah for gentile-majority tables, thankful that none of them can point out my uneven pronunciation. Latkes are thinking about whether I wish that my parents had put me in Saturday school despite being thankful to have grown up without the spectre of God. Or at least sent me to something like Saturday school, but for learning how to carry on religious traditions in a secular way. I’m not sure that makes any sense.
Still, I am sure that I made the right choice at age 13 when my mom offered me to either have a bat mitzvah ("but you’ll have to learn Hebrew and we barely have any living Jewish relatives to compensate you for your time!") or to visit London and Paris over spring break. On that trip I put my sneakered eighth-grade feet on a new continent for the first time and kept a diary that rated every crème brulée I ate out of one to five. My shame for being so poorly able to recount the legacy of the Maccabees comes and goes each year, but the pride of cataloguing Paris’ sweetest treats — and by luck of the highest order, doing so just before I succumbed to a paralyzing fear of dessert for the remainder of my teenage years — is forever. At least, that’s what I tell myself. Could you pass the sour cream?
Recipe: Latkes with Apple Sauce
For the latkes
2 large Russet potatoes (about 1 pound or 500 grams), peeled
1 large onion, peeled
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt (or 1 teaspoon fine sea salt), plus more for sprinkling
1 teaspoon baking powder
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Sunflower or other oil, for frying
For the apple sauce
4-5 apples peeled, seeded, and cut in small cubes
⅔ cup or 150 ml of water
Sugar and cinnamon (optional), to taste
1. Make the apple sauce: In a pot, on low-medium heat, cook the apples with the water covered, until the apples are cooked and the sauce reaches the desired consistency. The recipe traditionally includes sugar and cinnamon, but since latkes are largely a savoury dish, adding these is a matter of personal taste.
2. Using a food processor or a hand grater, grate the potatoes and the onions together. Get the moisture out of the mixture by using a salad spinner (if you don’t have one, use a clean towel to squeeze the moisture out). The less wet the potatoes, the crispier the latke. Add the eggs, baking powder, salt, and pepper and mix together well.
3. In a heavy-bottom pan heat about half a centimeter (quarter of an inch) of oil. Once the oil is hot, set your stove on medium-high, and cook the latke in batches using a big spoon to pour the mixture into the oil and a spatula to press them down the pan. When the sides of the latkes start becoming brown and crispy (about 4-5 minutes), flip them and cook the other side until golden brown. If you’re cooking multiple batches, feel free to add in a little bit more oil as you go along; this will make sure all of your latkes are golden and crispy.
4. Serve with sour cream and applesauce.