Citizens, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah begins this weekend, and the holiday is not complete without frying up a few dozen latkes (potato and onion pancakes) in oil!
This eight-day holiday celebrates the “miracle of the oil” commemorating the rededication during the second century B.C. of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The Jews had risen up against their Greek-Syrian oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt.
Even though there was only enough untainted holy olive oil to keep the menorah’s candles burning for a single day, the flames continued flickering for eight nights, leaving them time to find a fresh supply. This wondrous event inspired the Jewish sages to proclaim a yearly eight-day festival.
The Hanukkah celebration revolves around the kindling of a nine-branched menorah, known in Hebrew as the hanukiah. On each of the holiday’s eight nights, another candle is added to the menorah after sundown; the ninth candle, called the shamash (“helper”), is used to light the others.
In another allusion to the Hanukkah miracle, traditional Hanukkah foods are fried in oil. Potato pancakes (known as latkes) and jam-filled donuts (sufganiyot) are particularly popular in many Jewish households. Other Hanukkah customs include playing with four-sided spinning tops called dreidels and exchanging gifts.
Citizens, there is an art and science to making a true and proper latke, which I will now share with you!
First – you must make sure the potato onion mixture is very dry. Only then will you have properly crisp and not sodden latkes!
Second – save the potato starch from the drained potato liquid. This also keeps the latke crispy.
Third – use a combo of olive oil for flavor, peanut oil to keep the latke from burning and a bit of chicken fat for true savory flavor!
Fourth – add some finely minced fried chicken skin cracklings (grebenes in Yiddish) for both texture and supreme tastiness!
Fifth – cook in a heavy cast iron pan over very high heat! You want these to fry quickly, not to sit and absorb the oil due to improper frying.
Sixth – serve with applesauce mixed with horseradish for a combination of sweet and heat that really complements the latkes!
Citizens – my recipe for latkes is truly unmatched (and never previously shared!) and I hope you will try them, regardless of whether you are Jewish or not! My recipe to make grebenes and chicken fat is also included.
Battle on – The Generalissimo
2 ½ pounds Idaho baking potatoes, peeled
1 large yellow onion, quartered
2 eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup matzo meal
5 teaspoons chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon salt
⅓ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
⅓ cup finely minced grebenes – optional but highly recommended (Grebenes are chicken skin cracklings that render out when you make schmaltz, in case you were unaware)
2 cups olive oil
¾ cup peanut oil
¼ cup melted chicken fat (optional – or just use the same amount of peanut oil in its place)
1 large jar (16 ounces) applesauce
Freshly ground horseradish with vinegar (or top-quality jarred)
Make the Grebenes, if using:
The Hirshon Schmaltz and Grebenes
The classic taste of old-country Jewish cooking and old-school delicious – a necessity in Ashkenazic Jewish recipes!
Grebenes are cracklings; the crisp bits of poultry skin and browned onion left from rendering “schmaltz” (chicken or other poultry fat; the classic is goose fat).
Whenever you prepare chickens, pull off as much of the fat as possible and trim the skin (such as at the cavity opening and the neck). Save them in a bag or container in the freezer.
When you’ve accumulated a “critical mass” (at least ½ pound; more is better), remove from the freezer. I’ve found it is easier to handle when still frozen. I take a serrated-edge knife and start shaving it down into little bits.
Finely dice onions; the more the better. I use about one large onion for each ½ lb of fat. Put the onion and cut-up fat in a skillet with a large bunch of fresh thyme and a bay leaf or two and place on *low* heat. You’re interested in *melting* the fat.
Continue frying until the onions are dark golden-brown and the skin is entirely crisped. Turn off the heat and allow to cool (the onions will continue browning because of the high temperature of the schmaltz).
Once it is cooled to close to room temperature, you have the choice of transferring all (minus the thyme and bay) to another container to set — schmaltz, onions, grebenes and all — or straining the schmaltz through a fine sieve and enjoying the onions and grebenes separately.
Latkes, Old way:
Place a large strainer over a large bowl. Using the large holes of a box grater, grate some of the potatoes, followed by some of the onion, into the strainer. Repeat until all of the potatoes and onion are used up. (Alternating the potatoes and onion prevents the potatoes from discoloring.) Try to avoid grating your fingers in the process.
Place the onion in a food processor. Pulse the blade a few times until the onion is diced into crunchy bits. Remove the blade and scrape the onion bits into a small bowl. Return the food processor bowl to the machine. No need to wash it yet.
Cut the potatoes lengthwise to fit in the food processor feed tube. Find the medium-coarse food processor shredding disk, which you’ve never used. Put it into the machine and turn it on. Begin feeding the potato slices into the machine.
When the potatoes are shredded, put them in a colander over a large bowl. Dump in the onion bits and mix everything around with your hands, squeezing the potato moisture out as you work. Let the mixture drip for a few minutes. Dry the mixture thoroughly with paper towels.
Pour out the potato liquid from the bowl, but leave the starch that clings to the bowl. Dump in the shredded potato and onion mix. Add the eggs, the matzo meal, the parsley, the salt, the grebenes and the pepper. Stir the mixture well, then let it sit for about 10 minutes.
In a large cast-iron skillet, pour in ¼ inch of combined oils and chicken fat (if using). Over high heat, get the oil very hot, but don’t set off the smoke detector. Using a ¼ cup measure or a long-handled serving spoon, start spooning the batter into the skillet. Flatten each with a metal spatula to a diameter of 4 to 5 inches. Do not try to make the latkes uniformly round.
Reduce heat to medium and cook the latkes until golden brown on one side. Then turn over and fry them some more. When crispy on the outside and moist inside, about 5 minutes per side, remove and place on several thicknesses of paper towels. Keep doing this until you run out of batter.
Add more oil as needed.
Immediately remove from the room anyone who prefers latkes with sour cream. Serve the latkes immediately with applesauce mixed with horeseradish to taste.