Exploring Latkes (Potato Pancakes)
It Wasn't Always About the Potatoes
Once upon a time...
About 2,200 years ago, the people of Jehovah were forced into the worship of Greek gods by a tyrannical ruler from Damascus. They rebelled, and for three years fought for their freedom. Finally victorious, they reclaimed the holy temple in Jerusalem.
To rededicate the temple, the Jews needed to light the menorah, but their supply of oil was only enough for one night... or so they thought. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight nights. In that time, they were able to produce more and kept the eternal light aflame.
This is the miracle of Hanukkah, and this is why oil is an integral part of the eight-day celebration. Latkes are fried in oil and are a significant part of the feast—but did you know that they were not always synonymous with potato pancakes?
In The Beginning...
Latkes were made with ricotta cheese. A Sicilian rabbi named Kalonymus ben Kalonymus (1286-1328) included ricotta cakes in the list of dishes that should be served at a Purim feast. Years later (in 1492), the Spanish expelled Jewish settlers from the island of Sicily. The refuges resettled in northern Italy and brought with them the custom of combining two foods (dairy and oil) in their Hanukkah meal.
And Then Potatoes Arrived in Europe
Do you remember the story of the potato plant?
Potatoes were cultivated by the Inca of Peru over 8,000 years ago. In 1536, the empire was invaded by Spanish conquistadors who took samples of the potato home to Spain.
By the end of the century, potatoes had spread throughout all of Europe. The potato is the world’s 4th largest food crop (outperformed by only rice, wheat, and corn), but in the ability to feed the masses, it deserves a place at the top of the list. Consider this—a severe storm can fell top-heavy rice, wheat heads, or stalks of corn. But the potato grows underground, sheltered from wind, rain, and hailstorms.
Grain crop failures in Poland and the Ukraine eventually led to a reliance on the potato as the mainstay of peasant food. They were simple to grow, cheap to produce, and easy to store. Ashkenazi Jews gave potato pancakes their now-famous Yiddish name—latkes—and repurposed them as a holiday food in the mid-1880s.
I Love Latkes!
I'm not Jewish, but I love potato pancakes. Actually, if you have been reading my articles for a while, you will know that I love anything made with potatoes. Of course I love potato pancakes. I've been known to make an entire meal of them. Here's my recipe.
Equipment You Will Need
- hand grater or food processor with a shredding attachment
- cheesecloth or clean, lint-free kitchen towel
- large mixing bowl
- mixing spoon
- large skillet or saute pan
- metal spatula
- wire rack for cooling
- paper towels
- 3 large Yukon Gold potatoes (enough to make 5 cups of shredded potato)
- 1/2 large yellow onion, shredded
- 1 cup matzo meal
- 3 large eggs, beaten
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Olive oil for frying
- Optional garnishes (sour cream, chopped chives, minced fresh dill, applesauce)
- Grate the potatoes into a large bowl and cover with cold water.
- Grate the onion and set aside.
- Drain potatoes in the colander and then place in the middle of a large square of cheesecloth or kitchen towel. Wring to squeeze out as much water as possible.
- Combine potatoes, onion, matza, and eggs in large mixing bowl.
- Pour cooking oil into skillet to a depth of 1/8 inch. Heat over medium heat to 365 degrees F. (My mom always tested the readiness of the oil by dropping in a cube of bread. If it browned within a minute, the oil was ready).
- Set wire rack next to your skillet. Place paper towels underneath to soak up any drips of cooking oil.
- Form potato mixture into 3-inch patties. Fry 4 or 5 pancakes at a time. Don't crowd the pan. Flip when they are golden brown, about 4-5 minutes per side. Remove from pan and drain on wire rack.
More Recipes and Variations
Perhaps you are looking for a potato pancake that uses a little less oil. These oven-fried latkes are creamy on the inside and marvelously crispy on the outside, without pan frying.
Spinach, Feta, and Potato
I chose this recipe to share with you because it combines the "old" cheese latke and the now "traditional" potato latke. The flavor profile is Greek. Spinach, feta, and fresh dill combine to make a salty, savory pancake your whole family will enjoy.
Latke recipes typically rely on eggs as a binder (the glue that holds all of the ingredients together). This recipe is vegan (no eggs). The natural starch that accumulates in the bottom of the bowl when you drain shredded raw potato is the perfect "glue."
Carrot and Zucchini
These low-carb latkes use shredded zucchini and carrots in place of potato. Reducing carbs is an admirable goal, but personally, I would not attempt to make these if I did not have a food processor with a shredder attachment.
A few reviewers commented that the pancakes were bitter. I have found that the skin of carrots (especially older ones) can taste slightly bitter, so I would suggest peeling your carrots before shredding.
My daughter loves sweet potatoes for their taste, texture, and because they are lower in carbs than white potatoes. Of course, I had to find a sweet potato latke recipe for her.
Beet and Carrot
True confession. I have not made these pancakes (and am not sure that I ever will). I simply cannot do beets. I don't care if they are raw, steamed, roasted, or pickled. However, I know that many of you do like them, so this is my gift to you. They are pretty (I'll admit that). The blogger who posted this recipe suggested topping them with sour cream. Using my imagination, I can envision a bit of grated horseradish stirred into that sour cream (there's the bitter herb for your Purim meal), or perhaps some tangy goat cheese.
SmittenKitchen is a wonderful blog full of recipes created the way I think and written the way that I write. (I want to be SmittenKitchen2 when I grow up). These apple latkes sound like a fun dessert (or breakfast).
© 2018 Linda Lum