Food plays a prominent role in all Jewish holidays, but nothing surpasses the importance of latkes during the Hanukkah. We all know that Christmas comes on December 25 each year. But Hanukkah? The festival, which lasts for eight days, can be early or late, occurring in November or December, depending on the yearly Hebrew calendar. However, when it falls, it is sure to include latkes.
Hanukkah commemorates the Maccabean victory over Antiochus IV in 165 BCE. After defeating the Syrians, the Jewish Maccabeans found their temple pillaged and its holy eternal light extinguished. Upon relighting that sacred oil lamp, they could find only enough oil to burn for one day. Replenishing the supply meant an eight-day round trip but miraculously, the holy light lasted for eight days! Today we light candles for eight days to commemorate the event. Children are often given a small gift as the candles are lit and a special prayer is recited. At that point, someone might remark, “There was a war, we won, let’s eat!” Eating on Hanukkah means food cooked in oil, another tribute to the miracle. Latkes lead the pack!
The basic recipe for these potato pancakes is simple. Peel and grate raw potatoes, add eggs, seasoning and a binder such as flour or matzo meal. When the oil is sizzling, the latkes are added. However, when making latkes is a group effort (as often happens), there can be many conflicting ideas. Do you add onions? How many? Do you form each latka by slipping a spoonful of the batter into the oil or do you form it on your palm first? How much salt and pepper and maybe paprika or dill? The batter will become looser as you work — how much binder to thicken it again? How many should you fry at one time to keep the oil hot? Should they be removed when light brown, or do you like them well done? Fried latkes must be transferred to a paper towel-lined tray to drain and keep them crisp. One friend maintains that they must then go immediately into the mouth. I follow my mother-in-law’s routine and stand them up carefully in a loaf pan, the bottom lined with towels for further drainage. They can then be reheated in the oven or even frozen until needed. Though frowned upon by some, this convenience is practical for large gatherings with multiple latka donors and can lead to terrific latka tastings. The smell of the hot oil is a basic by product of Hanukkah, so some delicate souls make theirs in their garage or outdoors.
Purists would certainly embrace the Israeli practice of oil-fried jelly donuts, but new innovative latke recipes? I don’t think so. Sweet potato latkes? Carrot latkes? Cottage cheese latkes? Not for me! Just spread some applesauce or sour cream on a nice hot potato latke — mmmm.