"Fried things are highly popular at any celebration: they add a piquant variety to the menu; they are nice to look at, possess all of their original flavor, and can be eaten with the fingers, which is always pleasing to the ladies." Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste.
This is really a public service announcement disguised as a cooking post. In case you hadn't noticed, we're deep into latke season here. If you read through this post, study the photos, and follow the instructions, you will never have to eat the leaden, oily, flabby discs that so often pass as latkes in restaurants and delis, and, yes, your relatives' homes. My friend, the superb writer and editor and Food Network judge Gabriella Gershenson (photo, above) has generously agreed to share the outstanding recipe passed down from her Latvian babulenka and perfected for the modern kitchen by her mother, the superb chef and caterer Anna Gershenson. Your search for latke heaven ends now. By heaven I mean that your latkes will be thincrispflavorful and so light that you will dispense with all social niceties such as dishes, knives, and forks and eat them with your hands as soon as you can after they emerge from their brief bath in bubbling oil.
We begin: As Anna instructs in the recipe at the bottom of this post, assemble your ingredients and cooking accouterments. You will need several bowls, sheet pans, lots of paper towels, some aluminum foil; the kinds of things that may not immediately come to mind. If you have to stop mid-cooking to find them, latke perfection could be out of reach this time around. (Below, the ingredients: eggs, flour, onions, potatoes, oil. You will also need salt and pepper.)
Before we took this photo, Gabi and I had already peeled and cubed a boatload of russet potatoes. The type of potatoes is key: you want a starchy variety. I'll leave it to the food scientists to explain why. You also want to have a lot of oil on hand (Ed. note: Gabi uses Canola.)
Once you're at the point shown in this photo, you grind the onions and potatoes. "WTF? Grind? Every latke I've ever made has used shredded potatoes." I know, I know, me too. At first Gabi and I couldn't believe it either but you do grind the potatoes. You fit your food processor with this blade and blast away. How do you know when your potatoes have been ground to the proper texture? You listen to Anna: When you see that the potatoes are beginning to slide in the bowl and don't just sit attached to the walls, and moisture starts appearing, it's time to stop.
Next, you dump your first batch of ground onions and potatoes into a strainer set over a large bowl. Grind and strain the remaining potatoes and onions and when you're done, a goodly amount of milky water will have accumulated in the bowl. Peer through the water and you will see that the bottom of the bowl is coated with a thick white paste. This is the potato starch. Pour off the water, being careful to preserve the starch (see photo, right).
A brief history lesson: Hanukkah is all about the miracle of oil, a miracle that made one day's worth of oil last long enough to provide eight days of light to the victorious Maccabbees in the Temple of Jerusalem. A great miracle happened there. The takeaway for cooks is that you don't skimp on the oil. It's a mitzvah to use the right amount of oil so that your latkes will be delicious. Still, you're not deep frying your pancakes -- they're not submerged in oil -- you're pan-frying. The food makes contact with the pan and the oil reaches only half the height of the food at most. Gabi poured about 1/8 -1/4 inch of oil into each of two pans - one cast iron, the other non-stick. When the surface of the oil glistened and test drop of the batter sizzled, she measured about an eighth of a cup of batter for each latke into the oil, pressing down lightly on the surface to flatten. The oil bubbled happily around the edges of each pancake. The apartment filled with the pleasing aroma of frying onions. The sous chefs assembled accompaniments traditional (sour cream, apple sauce) and contemporary (smoked salmon, salmon roe, cinnamon sugar, BLiS maple syrup), and put on some music.
Gabi lifted the first batch of latkes from the pan and placed them on a paper towel-lined baking sheet. We blotted the surface with another layer of towels. As it turned out, the latkes had been cooked so perfectly that there wasn't much oil to blot. While Gabi loaded up the pans with the second batch, we moved the cooled latkes to the foil-lined pan and set them on the table, a sight to behold, and devour:
This too can be yours! In time, you will make latkes with the sprezzatura of babulenka! Here is Anna Gershenson's recipe in full.
Anna Gershenson's Recipe for Old World Latkes in the Modern Kitchen
5 pounds russet potatoes (organic if possible), peeled, cut into 3/4-inch cubes ((Ed note: it's essential to cut the cubes this small otherwise the potatoes won't grind uniformly.)
2 good-size onions, peeled, cut into a large dice (about 1/2-inch)
4 large eggs
1/2 cup flour (you can use whole wheat pastry)
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon kosher Diamond salt
A few grindings of black pepper
Canola oil for frying.
A two tablespoon measuring cup would be helpful for portioning the batter.
or use a 1/4-cup measure filling it halfway
Lots of paper towels
Aluminum foil (prepare 3 sheets the length of half-size baking pan)
Two non-stick skillets for finish the job faster.
Prepare the utensils and ingredients:
First peel all the potatoes and place them in a large bowl filled with cold water.
Then peel onions and set them aside in a small bowl.
Cut potatoes into smaller chunks and placed them in to another large bowl
Cut up the onions and placed them back in the small bowl.
Prepare the baking sheet with paper towels (with additional roll nearby to cover the greasy paper towels and additional pieces of paper towel to blot the top of latkes with to get rid of excess oil.
The procedure for processing onions and potatoes:
It takes four batches to process everything.
First place a quarter of the onions and run the processor (Keep the on switch all the time. Closing the lid will activate it) until the onions were really fine.Add about a quarter of the cubed potatoes (to fill the processor bowl to almost half point).
Run the processor for about 20 seconds, then use the spatula to move them around and run the processor again for another 10-15 seconds.
When you see that the potatoes are beginning to slide in the bowl and not just sit attached to the walls and moisture starts appearing, it's time to stop.
Use the big bowl the potatoes were in originally with a strainer placed over it to dump processed potatoes. While you are working on your next batch, the potatoes will be draining. When your second batch is done, press on the potatoes in the strainer to extract more moisture, transfer to a another bowl where your potato batter will be held.
Repeat until all the 4 batches are processed. Pour off the liquid accumulated in the big bowl under the strainer but retain the potato starch.at the bottom and add it to the potato batter.
Crack the four eggs into your food processor bowl, add the salt and process to mix them. Add the egg, the 1/2 cup flour and black pepper to the potatoes and mix well.
Now your batter is ready and you should fry it right away.
Pour good amount of canola oil into the skillet and let it get hot. Fill 1/4-cup measure about half-full and place it onto the skillet. With the bottom of the cup spread the batter to for a thin pancake about 2 1/2-3 inches in diameter. Repeat until you have filled the pan space. Do not overcrowd. Flip on the other side when the pancake is brown. Then transfer onto the paper towel-lined sheet and blot with paper towel.
When the pan is full, transfer the cooked latkes onto the second sheet lined with foil.
It is very important to keep stirring the batter every time you fry a new batch as water keeps separating and it needs to be mixed in.
This recipe should make about 68 latkes that filled three full sheets of foil layered on top of each other. This can be prepared a day in advance and reheated one layer at a time in a 400-degree over until hot and crisp.
Ed note: This post first appeared on December 3, 2010