December 21 is the first night of Chanukah. One of the rituals I enjoy most about the holiday is frying potato latkes—a tradition I learned from watching my dad prepare them every year for our family Chanukah party.
This year I will take out my dad’s old wire grater and pass on the legacy of the latkes to my two granddaughters. I will tell them about their great-grandpa Mort, who made the crispiest, most delicious latkes in the world.
My dad didn’t cook all year, but when Chanukah came around, he became King of the Latkes. He’d lay out two dozen potatoes, one per guest, and after he peeled one, he’d place it in a bowl of cold water. Then he’d set the flat wire grater over a large wooden bowl. My dad and I would take turns rubbing the slippery white potatoes back and forth across the rough metal wires of the grater until just a tiny nub of potato remained. The challenge was to avoid scraping our knuckles on the grater. As the raw potatoes sat in the bowl turning pink and mushy, he’d tip the bowl every few minutes to pour off the excess liquid into the sink. Next, he grated an onion while tears streamed down his cheeks. He cracked in several eggs and sprinkled just enough flour to lightly cover the surface before he mixed the batter with a big wooden spoon.
My dad used three cast iron skillets on our gas stove and put a generous scoop of Crisco in each one. We didn’t begin cooking them until the guests were about to arrive. Reheated soggy latkes would have been heresy to my father. When our grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins came to the door, the smell of hot oil greeted them.
Everyone made their way into the kitchen to watch and wait for this once-a-year tradition. The oil had to be hot enough to sizzle but not burn. Wearing a dishtowel around his waist, he stood at the stove dropping spoonfuls of the chunky batter into the oil and waited for them to turn golden brown. Then he flipped them with a fork, browned the other side, and drained them on brown paper bags spread over the counters.
As soon as a batch was done, my mom placed the crispy, fragrant latkes on a platter. Before she could set them on the table, they’d be snatched up by our guests to be covered with sour cream or applesauce. Dad beamed with pride as everyone cheered: “You make the best latkes in the world!”
My dad’s been gone for twelve years, but every Chanukah when I stand at the stove frying latkes, I feel my dad’s spirit come through me. He taught me well and I know he’d be kvelling that I’m passing on his latke secrets to his great-granddaughters.
My Dad’s Latke Recipe
8 large Russet potatoes
1 large onion
1/3 cup flour
salt and pepper
Peanut oil or Crisco
- Peel the potatoes and keep them in cold water until ready to grate.
- Grate the potatoes and onion on a wire grater. If you don’t have one, you can grate them on the small holes of a box grater. Pour off the excess liquid from the mixture.
- Blend the potato mixture with the eggs, flour, and salt and pepper to taste.
- Pour about an inch of oil into the pan and heat until a drop of water sizzles.
- Drop about one heaping tablespoon of mixture for each latke into the skillet and spread it into a circle.
- Fry until golden and crisp then turn once to cook the other side. Remove and drain on brown paper bags or paper towels.
- Serve with sour cream or applesauce.
Serves 8 – 10