I grew up in a house where we celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas, and what we lacked in spiritual fidelity, we more than made up for in peace, love and merriment. Dad’s Southwestern-themed Christmas tree (complete with chili pepper lights, seriously) stood tall in the living room, while Mom decked the dining room in blue and silver, with a funny little flocked tree we called “The Hanukkah bush”, sitting square on the table. Didn’t matter–we weren’t the types to eat in the dining room anyway.
I used to love watching the menorah candles burn down in the dark as oil sizzled in a pan just a room away. It was my mom making latkes. You don’t have to be Jewish (or half-Jewish, natch) to appreciate a well-made latke. Potato pancakes fried in oil? That there’s the universal food of love, baby.
I made my first attempt at latkes this year as a nod to my heritage and a virtual Hanukkah shout-out to my Mama, the cutest little Jewish girl in Texas. I started by dragging home a big ol’ bag of potatoes. Even if you don’t buy the majority of your produce organic, you should spring for the organic potatoes because they typically contain a lot of pesticides. See for yourself.
There were only four ingredients in my latke recipe–potatoes, oil, onion, and egg. And salt, duh. There was no way I could mess these up, right? (This is called ‘foreshadowing’). I peeled the potatoes, and quickly put them in a bowl of water so they wouldn’t get all brown and funky on me.
Then, I turned the potatoes into a starchy messy mush by grating them all in a food processor, and resoaking. Then I drained them in a colander and combined them with the grated onion.
Now, here’s where I was a naughty little thing and I stopped following the recipe. It instructed me to roll up the potatoes in a paper towel “jelly roll style” to drain out all the water. I didn’t have any paper towels; I only had paper napkins which are discernibly thinner and shorter. So I dabbed the napkins around the potatoes like I was powdering the shine from a nose. It seemed to get most of the moisture out.
I mixed in an egg. This should have bound those potatoes for life. Then I got to frying them in little patties in the oil, which I didn’t photograph because sizzling oil and my camera don’t play nice with each other. Let’s just say they smelled like my mom’s latkes, but they sure didn’t look like them.
They looked like this. Which is to say, a hot mess.
Then I tried to transfer them to a baking sheet so they could stay warm in the oven, and they really turned on me. It’s as if they knew I’m only half-Jewish and haven’t seen the inside of a temple since the bar mitzfah circuit 20 years ago. I was tempted to cut my losses and serve these with an omelette in the morning, because instead of latkes I ended up making Hanukkah hash browns.
By the last batch, I had finally figured out my problem. I wasn’t letting them cook long enough. They require about five minutes on each side, and should only be flipped once. The last ones looked, smelled and tasted just like my mom’s. Dare I say–like my Bubbie’s? That oil really does work miracles.