A Whole Latke Love

Jane Sherman

The search for the perfect latke is the search for the one thing you'll never find: the one your mom used to make. Thick or thin, cakey or dense, laced with shredded potato or smooth and fritter-like: Whatever your childhood memories hold, that is the right way to fry a latke.

My mom never made latkes. Presbyterians generally don't. But I am now married to a man who craves potatoes, onions, and grease as soon as the sun starts to set around five o'clock in the evening. My search, then, is for the latke my mother-in-law used to make.

In my early attempts, I was flying blind. Forget frying potatoes by Bubbe's side every December; I had never laid eyes on a proper latke. So I pulled out the arsenal.

Joy of Cooking? Nearly 1,300 pages in my edition, and not a word about frying potato patties. The good folks at Cook's Illustrated magazine put together a collection called The New Best Recipe, my go-to book for just about any culinary classic. Latkes apparently did not make the Americana cut for these stalwart New Englanders.

Another solid basic culinary resource is Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. Bittman is a good Jewish boy and there, on page 598, I found a starting point: two versions of "potato pancakes," one with eggs and matzoh meal, the other nothing but potatoes—a kind of thin, lacy hash brown.

Then I turned to the specialists. In her Jewish Cooking in America, Joan Nathan is enthusiastic about a thin and crispy pancake that calls for an egg but omits fillers like matzoh meal and flour. She concedes that traditionalists may wish to add matzoh—but in a larger proportion than Bittman does.

The 2nd Ave Deli Cookbook, by Sharon Lebewohl and Rena Bulkin, threw me for a complete loop. Describing latkes as "just potato kugel in pancake form," the recipe calls for two cups of matzoh meal for two pounds of potatoes—next to Bittman's two tablespoons—plus a full cup of flour. It also throws in leavener, in the form of a hefty dose of baking powder, and a massive amount of oil. ("Most of it cooks out," Lebewohl and Bulkin bafflingly seek to reassure cooks.)

What's a shiksa to think? Am I making a puffy, savory cake, or a loose vegetable patty?

To start, I took a stab at the 2nd Ave Deli's "kugel in a pan" and Nathan's traditionalist version. The result in both cases: leggy, stringy, unevenly cooked messes. I had run whole potatoes through the food processor and ended up with strands up to six inches long. How was I supposed to know that was never going to fly?

Nathan exhorts cooks to squeeze all of the excess liquid out of the potatoes, reserving the starch that settles to the bottom and mixing it back into the potatoes. The process is as messy and hard to manage as it sounds. She also instructs us to form tight patties of the potato mixture and "flatten as best you can." There's a reason that directive sounds so timid: It ain't easy, folks.

The cooks at the 2nd Ave Deli are more relaxed about the excess liquid in the potatoes: "Don't overdo it; just let the water drain out." This batter gets spooned into the oil, but mine was too thick, so I tried to flatten it with a spatula, making a bit of a mess. The instruction here is to "Fry on low heat." I wasn't sure exactly what they meant by "low," but that sounded like a recipe for sodden, greasy lumps to me. I was right.

But there was a bigger problem in this whole experiment: I didn't know what I was shooting for. It was time for a consultation with the household expert, a conversation that, unbeknownst to me, would entail digging nearly as deeply as a psychoanalyst.

To start with the basics: What's in a latke? Joan Nathan gives recipes for zucchini Parmesan latkes, curried sweet-potato latkes, carrot and parsnip latkes. She claims it's the oil and not the potato that makes the latke. My husband grunts and waves his hand. To goad him, I continue with the recipes from the 2nd Ave Deli: vegetable latkes, matzoh meal latkes (variation: add rum), cheese latkes. He stands up from the table. I think he actually wants to say, "meshuggah," a word I have never heard him use with any seriousness.

A latke, apparently, is a potato pancake. Period.

My next question: Is it thin and lacy like the crispy top layer of a plate of hash browns? (Bittman and Nathan both include recipes for these). No. That sort is dismissed as (and can there be a worse epithet?) "Germanic."

A latke is thick. Maybe half an inch thick. Maybe a little less. You wouldn't call it cakey. Or doughy. It should not be heavy, but definitely should be dense. A picture is forming in my husband's mind. It is a fuzzy picture, layered with other childhood associations (such as premature exposure to Philip Roth) and dulled by the fact that he surely never ate latkes more than once a year. (His family's dietary inclinations are closer to the California coast than the shtetl.)

So I do what I should have done much earlier in the process: I pick up the phone and call my mother-in-law.

Despite having the figure and body fat percentage of an athlete, Sylvia is proud of her latkes. She uses the recipe she learned from her own mother while growing up in Montreal. "It's more of a proportion than a recipe," she explains, specifying the number of potatoes and amount of matzoh meal per egg.

She says she has two secrets, and shares them willingly (anything for the good of the grandchildren). First, she separates the eggs and beats the whites. "Fluffy isn't quite the right word for them, but they are light," she says. And she always grates the potato by hand. "Ah! Shorter strands!" I'm thinking. Well, that and a little bit of guilt: "I always say you get about five drops of human blood in every batch," Sylvia says.

Finally, a real live person to address the questions that the books don't answer: What kind of potato? Sylvia uses red or white waxy ones (though I later found starchier russets and Yukons work as well). What kind of oil? "I suspect my mother used Crisco, but I just use a bland vegetable oil." How does the frying actually work? (I am not of the generation for whom "fry the latkes" is as clear an instruction as "preheat the oven." I need specifics here.)

Well, Sylvia explains, it's not quite a deep-fry, but it's close. The oil needs to be deep enough to come about halfway up the latke, so about a quarter-inch or a little more. It should be hot, but not smoking. It's ready when you can bounce a drop of water off the surface. The batter will be thin enough that you can drop it by large spoonfuls and it will spread into two- to three-inch patties. Serve them, of course, with very good applesauce and maybe some sour cream.

I try out the recipe on my husband and a friend, someone who also gets a little nostalgic for fried foods around this time of year. My husband pronounces these, his mother's latkes, perfect (of course). But my friend prefers my (now more practiced) version of the 2nd Ave Deli cakey latkes. I watch as a distant memory takes hold of his mind; I can almost see it getting clearer as he chews. "A meat grinder!"

His own mother used to put the potatoes through the meat grinder, turning them into pulp. So we make another batch, hand-grating the potatoes on the raspy side of the box grater (the otherwise useless side you've always wondered about) until they are just about liquefied. A call is placed to his mother in New York: What to do with all that extra liquid? We drain just a drop of it, making the thinnest batter yet. It plops with ease into the hot oil and the result is a batch of lovely, chewy, fritter-like cakes, extra crispy and brown.

And there it was: the perfect latke—for him.

The lesson here? Call your mother already.


Grandma Lusia's latkes

· 2 large or 4 medium potatoes

· 2 eggs

· 2 tablespoons matzoh meal

· A bit of grated onion

· Salt and pepper to taste

· Canola or other vegetable oil

Peel and grate the potatoes by hand. Then wrap in a tea towel and squeeze hard to remove excess water.

Separate the eggs. Beat the whites to a soft peak.

Stir the egg yolks, matzoh meal, onion, salt, and pepper into the potatoes. Fold in the egg whites lightly.

Fill a heavy pan with about a quarter- to a half-inch of canola or other mildly flavored vegetable oil. Heat until a drop of water bounces on the top. Drop batter with a serving spoon into the oil, forming patties about three inches across. Turn the latkes when the bottom seems firm enough to turn (they should be quite crispy and dark brown).

Remove when second side is crispy. Drain on a cooling rack turned upside down over a thick layer of newspaper.

Latkes can be frozen and reheated in a 350-degree oven.

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