A Latke Primer

I don’t really know anything when it comes to most “Jewish” food. I don’t do gefilte, I dislike both pickled herring and lox, and I’ve never made most of your Bubbie’s famous dishes. But give me a frying pan and some potatoes and I’ll make you a latke to write home about. 

We got a piano for Hanukah!
Two nights down…

Since there are still a few days left of Hanukah, and I’ve heard from a couple of people that they can’t ever get their latkes quite right, I decided to pass on my humble knowledge of this famous fried food. I’ve also had Joe tell me he thinks I was born with a Jewish soul simply based on how well I cook traditionally cultural Jewish food even when I’ve never made it before, but I guess that’s just his opinion.

There’s really nothing worse than a mushy, soggy latke. Or one that falls apart in the pan and then just ends up in a million burnt shreds. Or one that’s too dry because the potatoes were grated too fine.

In other words, there’s a lot of ways to get them wrong. But I’m going to help you get them right, at least the way I do it. Your Bubbie may or may not approve.

Breaking my own rules: not enough onion 😦

There are a couple of key steps:

Grate the onion first. The juices from the onion will help keep the potato from browning as you grate it. I usually grate about 1/4 of a medium largish onion per 3 potatoes or so. And every 2-3 potatoes I mix the onion and potato shreds together to coat them all with that onion juice. Don’t grate everything too fine or too big either, or your’ll end up either with mush or with latkes that don’t hold together at all. 

Don’t do your nails fancy before this: the fancy won’t survive.

Add the salt before draining. This helps release any excess juices from the potatoes, allowing you to really drain them well. This leads to the next step which is:

Drain the mix for longer than you think is really necessary, over a bowl. Start early, and let your shredded onions and potatoes drain over the bowl you will mix everything in for at least an hour. Every 20 minutes or so, go over there and really press the mix down into your colander to squeeze out that juice. Do it again right before you mix up the batter.

Dump off all the juice but leave the starch! At the bottom of the bowl that you have been letting your potatoes drain into, there will be a slime of potato starch. Leave it there and mix everything else into it. This extra starch really helps to bind together the rest of the ingredients. And speaking of starch:

It doesn’t look pretty right now, but whatev.

I use flour instead of matzoh, but either one is fine. Finer starch will absorb the excess liquid more quickly.  A couple of Tbsp for every couple of potatoes is a good rule of thumb.

Ditch the egg whites. They don’t help bind all that much, and they have a lot of extra water content, which you just spent an hour getting rid of. Keep your whites though, to make meringues or for egg white omelets if that’s your thing. Use two egg yolks when your recipe calls for one whole egg, or for every 3-4 potatoes. 

Add extra stuff if you want, just keep the ratio of potato:onion:starch:eggs in mind. I like to add green onions, a little cheese, sometimes celeriac or apples, carrots or sweet potatoes. Mix it up and add different spices too. I’ve seen good recipes for samosa style latkes and dessert latkes, and even greek inspired ones served with tzatziki. 

Get the oil good and hot before you start cooking, and don’t be afraid to use quite a bit. If your pan starts to look dry between batches, add a bit more and reheat before adding more latkes.

Get messy. It’s better if you can hand form your latkes: they’ll be thinner and crispier than if you just drop a big glob in the pan. I take about a palmful of batter and form it into a disk, then drop it into the oil. After I’ve filled the pan (but not too many! You don’t want them to be crowded or they’ll just steam.) I go back and lightly press them down with my spatula.

Cook until golden brown and then flip, just once. If they start to burn before you think they’re getting done inside turn the heat down a touch. But don’t worry too much about raw insides because you can always finish them in the oven. If you flip them too many times they’ll start to fall apart no matter how good your batter is.

Drain as you go, onto a paper towel lined sheet pan in a warm oven. They’ll stay nice and crispy for long enough to fry up all the batter so everyone can sit down together.

Sweet Potato Latkes with Cardamom Applesauce and Mascarpone

Not Your Grandma’s Caramel Corn

I am unabashedly in love with popcorn. It’s pretty much a perfect food. It’s sorta plain on its own so it can be flavored like anything. It’s always crunchy. It’s easy to make. It’s easy to make totally fattening with loads of butter, or it’s easy to make very healthy with just a little olive oil.

I also am pretty sure that gingersnaps are another perfect food. They’re spicy and sweet, chewy and crispy. They’re all pretty and crackly, and the flavor is very complex. They’re probably my favorite cookie.

So what happens if you get a totally genius idea. To set gingersnaps and popcorn up on a blind date?

Well, if you add a bottle of champagne, like I did, then they have a love child that is pretty much the most perfectest food in existence. At least, this week.

And then if you have leftover popcorn from making that not-too-big-there’s-no-such-thing batch of caramel corn, you make something that is even better. Because you have the ingredients, and a buddy who is willing to get a little crazy with them. You know, the buddy whose idea it was to add rosemary and maple syrup to her caramel corn, because she’s also a genius.

It will also be spicy and sweet, and sorta floral too. That’s the cardamom talking. But when you taste the chipotle, then you know you have a winner.

The chipotle is like a ninja.

You can put in all in bags if you want, but chances are it won’t last long enough to get stale. Consider that your warning.

If you have a stash of popcorn kernels and some brown sugar and butter, you too can make a delicious snack that will make your house smell good until the next day. 

Variations on Caramel Corn
makes about 8 quarts

Old Fashioned:

8 or so quarts air or oil popped popcorn, plain
2 cups light brown sugar
1 cup butter
1/2 cup corn syrup
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 250ºF. Bring the sugar, butter, corn syrup and salt to a boil while stirring. Once it’s really going, let it boil undisturbed for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add the baking soda and vanilla. Stir well (careful, it might foam up) and pour over popcorn. Coat completely and spread over sheet pans. Bake for 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes. Let cool, break up any big chunks, and devour store in an airtight container.

Gingersnap Caramel Corn:

Replace the corn syrup with blackstrap molasses.
Replace light brown sugar with dark brown.
With the baking soda, add the following:
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground allspice
Omit vanilla.
For extra ginger kick, add a cup of finely diced candied ginger to the caramel just before pouring over the popcorn.

Cardamom Chipotle Caramel Corn:

Follow the recipe for Old Fashioned, but add 1 (heaping) tsp cardamom and 3/4 tsp chipotle when you add the baking soda.

Rosemary Maple Caramel Corn:

Replace the corn syrup with grade B maple syrup.
When combining the popcorn and caramel, add about 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh rosemary as you stir, or more to taste.
Omit vanilla.