Despite what a lot of people think, the Jewish festival of Chanukah does not “move.” It is celebrated at the same time every year on the Hebrew calendar, but its timing shifts on Gregorian/Western calendar, depending on how the those two calendar systems align in any given year. Typically Chanukah ends up in December on the calendar we use in the West, reasonably close to Christmas.
But this year, for the first time since 1888 – and not happening again for another 77,798 years, Chanukah will instead coincide with Thanksgiving. And so, was born Thanksgivukkah, a rather ridiculous but also comically ingenious name for the combined holiday.
No matter when it falls, Chanukah means latkes in my house. According to the Jewish Daily Forward, one of my favorite and consistently reliable information sources, “latke” is Yiddish, derived from Russian and refers to a “flat cake of unleavened dough.” Today, we associate latkes with potatoes, but before the mid-1800s, they were made of buckwheat flour and before that, their main ingredient was cheese.
“Traditional” Eastern European latkes use potatoes as their base, with onion and perhaps a few other herbs, a bit of flour or matzo meal and an egg or 2 to hold the pancake together.
These days, variations on the latke-theme abound, from the obvious to the extreme. Simple variations include or rely heavily on other vegetables, such as zucchini, carrots, parsnips, celery root, or even pumpkin. More exotic variations change up the flavorings, using ginger or jalapeno or even cloves and cinnamon.
But no matter what you add or subtract, the base of a latke is the oil in which you fry them. Symbolizing the long-lasting, oil lamp flame that lit the Second Temple after the Jewish army called the Maccabees defeated the Syrians in 165 B.C.E., the oil keeps latkes messy to make and delicious to eat.
What do you need to know to make latkes? The basics I’ve set out below will work with almost any latke recipe. Still, there is always the matter of personal taste and variations in technique. If you’ve got a tip I left out or a variation on one of mine, do let us know. If you’ve got a “bone to pick” with my basics, I hearken back to the phrase I heard often growing up – “you’ve got a different opinion, so what else is new?”
- Texture. The ingredients should be moist but not water-logged. If you are using potatoes, after grating or shredding, rinse and dry them. The same goes for any other vegetable that would discolor if left undisturbed. Zucchini are filled with water, so salting them and then rinsing and drying will help keep the pancakes from getting soggy. I squeeze my grated onion in a paper towel to pull out water too.
- Crispy Edges. If you like crispy edges, use shredded, not finely grated vegetables. The more little edges, the crispier the latke gets. Some folks like a more mashed/finely grated consistency for their pancake batter; that yields a crunchy outside, but no crispy edges.
- Oil. There must be enough in the pan to reach about halfway up each latke; not enough to deep fry, but enough to let the oil bubble up around the edges.
- Temperature of the oil. Keep the oil hot. Make sure it is hot before you put the first batch in (not smoking, but plenty hot) by testing with a small bit of the batter. As you add in latkes, the temperature of the oil goes down, so don’t put in too many at once and when you take out one batch, let the oil temperature come back up before putting in the next one.
- Space-out your latkes. When cooking, keep enough space between the latkes that oil can bubble up on all sides of each one.
- Drain the latkes! If the oil is hot enough and you drain each pancake as it comes out of the pan, they won’t be greasy. As you a fully-cooked latke from the pan, tilt it so that the excess oil drips back into the pan. Then, before you serve or freeze it, let the latke drain on a cookie sheet covered in a double layer of paper towel for a minute or two.
- Freezing latkes. Latkes are a great make-ahead dish. After they have drained, put the latkes on a cookie sheet lined with wax or parchment paper. Freeze them on that cookie sheet until they are hard to the touch. Then remove and place the latkes in a tightly closed freezer bag or container, separating each layer with wax or parchment paper. Remember to label the packages! Even date them if you’ll keep them for more than a week or two.
- Reheating. Lay them on an ungreased cookie sheet in a 375 or 400 degree F pre-heated oven. They are fully reheated after about 15 minutes, when the oil begins to bubble at their edges. Watch them carefully so that they do not burn. If necessary, blot them with paper towels before serving.
For latke recipes from classic to a bit meshugenah (crazy), click here.