Note: if you have read my blog post called Chanukah Gelt, some of this text will be familiar to you.
Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, is observed for eight days, and commemorates the victory of a small band of Maccabees (Jews) over the pagan Syrian-Greeks who ruled over Israel at that time. It starts on the 25th day of the month of Kislev, in the Hebrew lunar calendar. Because it is associated with a lunar calendar date, the date in the ‘regular’ 12 month calendar varies each year (as with all other Jewish holidays). Generally it takes place in the month of December though, so it fits in nicely with other holidays happening at the same time.
As is the case with many Jewish holidays, Chanukah can be summed up as follows: the Jews battled their foes, we won, let’s eat!
The word Chanukah has two meanings – the first means ‘dedication’ since this festival marks the rededication of the previously defiled Temple in 165 BCE (BCE means Before the Common Era; the Common Era refers to the time after Jesus Christ was born. Jews use the terminology Before the Common Era (BCE) and After the Common Era (ACE) instead of BC and AD.
The second meaning of Chanukah helps people remember what day (the Hebrew date) the festival begins! “Chanu” translated to “they rested”, and “Kah” (composed of the Hebrew letters for 25 - “Chof and Hay”) means “on the twenty fifth” (referring to the 25th day of the month Kislev).
Please refer to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanukkah, or other sites on the internet, for more information and details about Chanukah (also spelled Hanukkah).
People generally refer to Chanukah as the Festival of Lights, in reference to the candles that Jews light for each of the 8 nights of Chanukah. The story goes that when the Maccabees, led by Judah, defeated the Syrian-Greeks and reclaimed the Temple, they discovered only enough fuel (oil) to last one day. It would take them 8 days to manufacture new oil. By some great miracle, the oil lasted for 8 days.
The candles are lit on a special candelabra called a Menorah or Chanukiat. Once the candles are lit, small gifts are often given to the children (Chanukah Gelt is customary here), and traditional foods are eaten. Most traditional Chanukah foods are fried in oil, to commemorate the miracle of the oil (for example, latkes (fried potato pancakes), and sufganyiot (fried jelly-filled doughnuts).
I make latkes every year, and usually I make a very basic recipe. This year I decided to throw in some extra ingredients to spice it up a bit. Additionally, I did some research on the internet (what would we do without the internet?) and found a few pieces of info that I decided to employ this year. For example, I read that using half raw potatoes and half par-boiled potatoes helps hold the latkes together with the onions, reducing the need for flour and thus making them crispier.
Typically, if you search out a latke recipe on the internet, you will see that most recipes call for matzah meal and/or baking powder to be added. There are two very basic reasons why I don’t follow this advice, ever:
1) I don’t like fluffy, thick, chewy latkes, and
2) I like thin, crispy, crunchy latkes.
I guess that is really only one reason, just stated two different ways!
Now, I must share with you a WARNING! If you are ready to make latkes, be prepared for your house (your ENTIRE house) to smell like cooked garlic, potatoes and onion for at least a few days. There are ways to prevent this from happening. What I like to do is “Dexter” my kitchen, and by that I mean taping plastic drop sheets (or garbage bags) in the two doorways to prevent the oil smell from seeping into the entire house (see photo below).
Other methods include:
· cooking outside on the BBQ (good to do this in advance before the snow comes, and then freezing your latkes for later re-heating),
· shutting all other doors in your house,
· hanging a large blanket in your doorways,
· or not cooking latkes at all and ordering them from a deli instead ;-)
So here’s the recipe!
3 medium raw potatoes (Yukon Gold is best), peel left on, grated
3 medium par-boiled potatoes (Yukon Gold is best), peel left on, grated
2 large sweet onions, chopped finely
2 large raw carrots, grated
1 large raw zucchini, peel left on, grated (when I say large, I don’t mean one of the 5 pounders your neighbour pulls out of his garden in the late summer, I mean about 6 – 8 inches long and about 1.5 – 2 inches in diameter)
2 – 4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 eggs, lightly beaten with a fork
1 tbsp schmaltz (chicken fat, or you can use oil)
2 tbsp chicken soup stock (if you’re vegetarian, use veg stock or water)
Vegetable oil (for frying)
Salt and pepper (I like mine very peppery, add as desired but start with 1 tsp of each, at least)
No baking powder, no flour, no matzah meal!
Start by putting 3 medium potatoes in a pot of water and bring them to a boil. Cook until fork goes in somewhat easily. Remove and drain right away. (Yes, there are more than 3 potatoes in the photo below - I was cooking for a large group!)
In the meantime, grate the raw potatoes. You can either do this with a hand grater or in the food processor. Don’t over-grate (some recipes tell you to grate and then take some of the grated potato out and puree the remaining potato and then mix together – this gives you a very uniform, un-grated looking latke. I prefer to have crispy bits and to accomplish this, you need the grated ‘strands’ of potatoes – so don’t puree anything!). Place the grated raw potatoes in a bowl of cold water. Let them sit for a bit (this prevents them from turning brown later). Remove the potatoes and place them in a dishtowel with the zucchini (no need to do this with the carrots, but if they are mixed in already then there is no harm in that). Use the dishtowel to wring out the water so that the potatoes are dry (wet latkes are not good).
Once your bowl of potatoes is empty you will see some liquid in the bottom of the bowl. Drain the liquid carefully trying to keep the starch that is coating the bottom of the bowl. Add the starch into the freshly-squeezed potato mixture.
Now take your cooled par-boiled potatoes and grate them. Grate the carrots and zucchini. Chop the onions finely, add it all into the raw potato mix. Add the eggs, schmaltz (or oil), broth (or water), salt and pepper, garlic. Mix it up.
Heat the oil in a cast iron pan if you have one. If not, you can use a regular frying pan. I usually have two pans going at one time. Pre-heat the oven to about 275 degrees F (to keep the latkes warm). Take a heat-proof platter and line with paper towel (this will be for draining the latkes). If you are not serving them immediately, the best way to store them is as follows:
Use a deep casserole or roasting pan and line it with paper towel. Once the latkes have drained on the platter of paper towel, stand them up vertically in the roasting pan (like you see commercial cookies standing up in a box in rows). This way, they stay crispy because they are not piled on top of each other. You can then pop the entire roasting pan into the oven, paper towel and all, to re-heat the latkes when you’re ready to serve.
Back to cooking...
Once your oil is hot enough (you will know it’s hot by dropping a small tsp of latke mix into the pan – if it sizzles, it’s ready), take about 4 tbsp (loosely packed) of latke mix and place it into the pan. Press it down slightly to flatten it out – this makes it crispier.
This photo shows how to tell if the oil is ready - note the sizzling.
Fry until golden brown on that side, and then flip over carefully.
Once they are golden brown on both sides, remove them from the pan and place them on the paper towel to drain. I like to dust mine with coarse salt while they are still hot. But taste them first to make sure this won’t make them too salty!
Serve while hot with applesauce and sour cream, the two traditional toppings.