With an abiding love for tall, dark and intellectual men, I spent much of my 20s in relationships with Nice Jewish Boys, and, being the kind of girl you could take home to Mom (by day, at least), was invited to a couple of Chanukah celebrations along the way.
Chanukah at Chad’s house was fairly forgettable—although I still cringe at the memory of his dingbat-non-Jewish new stepmother interrupting a sung prayer, declaring that it reminded her of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and gracing us with an a cappella rendition.
But Chanukah at Aaron’s house was actually one of the highlights of my short experiment in West Coast living. We drove up to his relative’s house in Malibu, a relative who regaled us with tales of his latest production, a little film called “Titanic.” I felt like a church mouse in my WASPy skirt and twinset amongst a flock of designer-casual cousins. The food was forgettable, catered in, but the latkes! I can’t remember Aaron’s last name, but I have never forgotten his grandmother’s latkes.
This was a woman who had, within 30 minutes of meeting me, patted my leg conspiratorially and said “Don’t worry about your thighs. Men like big thighs on a girl.” I hadn’t, until that moment, been particularly worried about my thighs, being at the twentysomething height of my nubile-young-thingness. But this was L.A., after all, where even Jewish grandmothers have distorted views of healthy women’s’ bodies. I’m willing to overlook her pointed comment because of the latkes…..crispy-edged, tender-moist in the center, not greasy….with flecks of green something.
Over the years, I’ve tried to reproduce those latkes, combing the internet for new ideas. I shredded my potatoes by hand and by processor, I added flour, potato starch, matzo meal….fewer eggs, more eggs. But they just weren’t what I remembered. This year, I stumbled on a Chowhound discussion of grating versus shredding, terms that I had previously considered interchangeable. It turns out that grating is actually using the nail-punch side of a box graters, producing potato mush rather than potato shreds. Apparently, this is the central European method of latkery, distinct from the German/western European shreds.
Grated Potato Goo
Shredded Potato Goo
Armed with 5 pounds of russet potatoes and an embarrassingly large jug of peanut oil, I immediately got grating. It is slower going, for sure, than shredding, even than hand shredding. Ultimately I ended up with a goo that, with some flour and an egg, fried up into Aaron’s Grandmother’s latkes! Slightly cakey, crisp at the edges, almost chewy in the center….yum.
But here’s the thing: they were pretty greasy. I checked my oil temperature, which stayed right in the 350 range for minimal grease absorption the whole time I was frying. Maybe there is something about the grating? I decided that I must immediately make some shredded-potato latkes to test.
So I shredded (by hand!) and wrung dry and floured and egged and fried, and sure enough, the shredded latkes were much less greasy. It seems counter-intuitive to me; greasy food happens when the moisture in food doesn’t turn to steam fast enough to form a bubbly barrier, exerting enough force on the oil to keep it from seeping in. Usually the culprit is oil that isn’t hot enough, but the oil temperature had stayed pretty consistent through both of my latke batches. Hrm.
If I were Alton Brown, or on the Cook’s Illustrated team I would have delved further in the science of it all. But since I’m not, and I had laundry to do and Christmas presents to wrap, I decided to just try something else, and see how that went. I wanted the creamy-chewy center of a grated latke, but the less greasy, super-crisp exterior of a shredded latke.
I opted for a ground-potato mixture, inspired by the latke musings of my favorite internet food chatters. Grinding potatoes in my food processor, with the chopping blade, not the shredding blade, resulted in a potato goo with more edges, slightly drier than the hand-grated potato goo, and profoundly easier, faster, and less bloody. I mixed the potato goo with the ingredients of my previously favored latke recipe, and got frying.
Latke nirvana. Shatteringly crisp edges, toothsome interior, rich potato flavor, no gumminess…..I’m there.
Having no tradition to fall back on, I served the latkes with everything: homemade applesauce, sour cream, smoked salmon, some briney capers…..we gorged to the point of regret. Once a year.
So I leave you with what, for me, is the best-of-class latke, and raise a glass to Aaron’s Grandmother, where ever she may be. Chanukah Sameach!
Serves 4 for Latke Night, or more like 6 or 8 as a side dish
2 pounds russet potatoes, skins on, well scrubbed
4 scallions, thinly sliced
1/3 cup flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
about a cup of peanut, grapeseed or vegetable oil, for frying
Chunk up the potatoes into roughly 1-inch cubes, and toss into a food processor fitted with the chopping blade. Process until finely ground, scraping down once, about 2 minutes. Transfer potato goo to a mixing bowl, and mix in the scallions, eggs, flour, baking powder and salt.
Heat about ¼ inch of oil in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat, until oil is around 350 degrees. Spoon tablespoons of now-pinkish potato batter into hot oil and fry, turning once, until deep golden brown. Drain on a rack set over a sheet pan. Repeat with remaining batter, refreshing the oil every few batches to maintain the ¼ inch level.
Serve hot to the appreciative assembled masses, with whatever your family thinks is the only appropriate thing to serve with latkes.
*To my understanding, based on a quick survey of my Jewish friends, this term is a simply slang for a non-Jewish woman. I had one person, however, state that it is really pejorative, and if that is your understanding, my apologies. I use it to describe myself in a deprecating manner, because a girl with my all-WASP, Founding Families lineage has no business makin’ latkes.