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The only latke recipe you’ll ever need

Latkes for 100 hungry Smithies? Dane Kuttler’s been there and done that. Here, she shares a few Hanukkah vignettes — and her quirky secret to achieving the lightest and crispiest potato pancakes ever.

  • Getty Images/iStockphoto

  • The year Thanksgiving fell during Hanukkah, Kuttler put her 15-year-old brother-in-law to work shredding potatoes and sent her father-in-law to the store for “way more oil than you could possibly imagine we might use.” Getty Images/iStockphoto



Staff Writer
Friday, December 07, 2018

Smith College, Northampton, 2006

We start at 4 p.m., knowing we'll be going until at least midnight, maybe longer. Somehow, it falls on half a dozen college students to cater the campus Hanukkah party, and somehow, we are ambitious and naïve enough to think we can pull it off every year. Somehow, it always gets done.

We line up the three food processors, their shredder blades at the ready. Onions get a table all their own, off in the corner; one year, someone brings a pair of swim goggles to avoid the tears, and we laugh and poke fun until we're all crying — except, of course, the ingenious swimmer. The washing sinks have been cleared to hold colanders for rinsing the shredded potatoes, and the stove becomes a ten-burner menorah, nursing far too many pans of hot oil.

By the end of the night, we are skidding around the oil-spattered floor, and everyone's coated in potato starch. The freezers are loaded with fried potato pancakes — we will stop counting once we hit 600 —  including an attempt at an ill-advised vegan batch, without egg to bind them. The kitchen will smell like fried onions until the end of January break. Come March, we'll be finding desiccated bits of shredded onion, clinging to the back of the stove.

And then we start making applesauce.

Northern New Jersey, 1997

My grandmother does not believe latkes are a meal unto themselves. She makes brisket to go with them, the classic slow roast that melts in our mouths with carrots and horseradish. We're gathered for the annual family Hanukkah party. The fireplace is roaring, the presents are carefully wrapped in last year's paper and stacked under the table. (It's a tradition for Grandma to snatch the paper from us as we finish unwrapping and tuck it away for later use.) And we kids are stuffing ourselves at the kitchen table, excused from the formalities of the dining room.

My younger cousin can put away as many latkes in five minutes as I can over the course of dinner; he scarfs down his three and looks longingly at my pile, dripping with applesauce. (I won’t learn about the wonders of sour cream on latkes until high school; our family is strictly an applesauce crowd.)

“Uh-uh,” I warn him, closing my arm protectively around my plate. “Don't even think about it.”

Grandma comes in to check on us, and he plaintively begs for more latkes, doing his best please-sir-may-I-have-some-more face. It's only slightly less believable on his perfectly rosy cheeks. Grandma spears a piece of his brisket with her fork and hands it to him. “For every bite, I'll give you one more,” she promises. “You can't grow big and strong on latkes alone.”

It turns out he's a fan of brisket, too. And I end up giving him my last latke when I'm too full to move. I still don't know where he put it.

 

Seattle, WA, 2013

After four years of all-night latke marathons, I've been in a self-imposed retirement for the last five Hanukkahs. I'll attend other people's Hanukkah parties and take a turn at the stove; I'll dole out recipes and offer advice. But when my 15-year-old brother-in-law offers to help me make latkes for the once-in-a-lifetime occasion of Thanksgiving falling during Hanukkah, I can't resist.

I put him to work shredding potatoes while I grate onions, and send my father-in-law to the store for “way more oil than you could possibly imagine we might use.” I miss the industrial kitchen when I realize our colander for rinsing potatoes is pathetically small, so I improvise with what I've got: an earnest helper, and a little creativity.

“The traditional Jewish practice,” I begin with a certain air of solemn authority, “Is to put the potato shreds in a clean sack — typically burlap, but we'll make do with a pillow case — and to take it outside and swing the thing around your head until all the starchy water flies out.” I'm barely holding my giggles back, but he nods thoughtfully, and runs for the linen closet.

The only thing I regret about this venture is my lack of a camera, as he dutifully takes a dripping pillowcase full of potatoes into the yard and swings it around his head like a slingshot, starch flying in an arc over the vegetable garden.

My father-in-law joins me to watch him, saying, “man, you really enjoy preying on the cultural sensitivities of a progressive teenager, don't you?” and we laugh — not to mock, but to enjoy the fact that he's willing to do this, willing to do whatever I ask to make me feel at home when I'm so far away from my family. This year, I hardly mind the grease in my hair or the smell of onions that won't scrub out for a week.

The latkes that year are the lightest, crispiest, and most perfectly-drained I've ever eaten.

 

Dane's Pillowcase-Drained Latkes

Serves 4

3 large russet potatoes, scrubbed and shredded by hand or in a food processor

2 medium or 1 very large onion, same

a big handful (a cup) of matzoh meal (if you're being true to my mother's tradition) or a smaller handful (¾ cup) of flour (if you don't happen to keep your matzoh meal in the back of the freezer after Passover for exactly this purpose)

2 small eggs, beaten

salt and pepper

1 clean pillowcase

a whole bottle of vegetable oil (don't use olive; the smoke point is too low and the flavor too strong. This is a time for canola or peanut oil.)

 

After you shred your potatoes, line your biggest bowl or pot with the open pillow case (as you would line a trash can with a bag.) Dump your potatoes (but not onion!) into the cloth and run water over it, swirling the potatoes around until they're floating a bit. Bring pot and pillowcase outside, along with any willing teenagers. Lift wet pillowcase out of pot and swing around your head until water stops spraying. Return to kitchen.

Combine potatoes, onion, matzoh meal/flour, beaten eggs, and salt and pepper (I like a good bit of pepper, as it tends to get lost in the mountain of potato flavor.)

Fill your biggest frying pan with about an inch to an inch and a half of oil. Heat over medium until it shimmers, but does not smoke. Scoop latke mixture into the pan, taking care to ease it in without dropping it. Use a spatula to flatten and flip. Should take anywhere from 4-6 minutes per side.

Drain on a baking sheet or plate lined with several layers of newspaper with one layer of paper towel on top. Paper grocery bags are also excellent for this purpose.

Serve with applesauce and sour cream. Enjoy the grease in your hair. Revel in the onions. Savor the taste of home — wherever it is and with whomever it may be.

Dane Kuttler has taught cooking lessons all over the Valley. She can be reached at dkuttler@gazettenet.com.