Thursday, December 22, 2011


Yes, indeed, it's Chanukah, or Hanukkah, or Chanukkah, or Chanuka, depending how you Romanize the Hebrew. Last night was the second of eight, and my partner and I declared the evening Latkes for Dinner night.

Latkes are potato pancakes, and a traditional food for celebrants of Chanukah. While variants abound, the basic ingredients are, well, basic: grated potatoes, eggs, flour, and grated onion. Salt and pepper, natch. Fry 'em up in a fry pan with not too much oil but not too little. Serve them with apple sauce, or sour cream, or both. Bacon? Ahhhhh .... probably not.

A colleague came by my desk earlier this month and asked me how I make latkes. His daughter (ten years old, or thereabouts) is an enthusiastic cook and a vegetarian, and she wanted to give latkes a whirl. 'Tis the season, and all that. My colleague, R--, can't summon up latkes from his own cultural background, so he asked my advice.

Sitting at my desk, thinking technology thoughts, I wasn't expecting the question. I reeled off what I remembered off the top of a head that was immersed in wikis and code repositories and enterprise service busses. When I went home, I looked up a recipe for latkes from a book my grandma once gave me and realized I'd forgotten a few key elements (like the grated onion -- oy!), so I brought the book in the next day and photocopied the recipe for R--.

But I never actually use the recipe.

Any residual tendency to use recipes for savory dishes was knocked out of me by a stint as a cook some twenty years ago, the one I mentioned last week in Changing careers. We didn't serve latkes per se at Oliveto, a restaurant here in the East Bay that focused then and still on northern Italian cuisine. We did occasionally serve potato pancake variants, perhaps serving them with smoked salmon and creme fraiche and chives. Mmmmmmmmmm... But I was saying: cooking with your senses -- touch, smell, taste, vision -- it's a principle, a habit, an abiding joy, actually. It sticks with you.

(For the record, I do tend to closely follow recipes for pastry, bread, cakes, and so forth. Baking is fussier than cooking savory dishes, I prefer to hedge my bets.)

So when I came home yesterday evening and started to prepare latkes I made them the way my grandma used to describe most anything she taught me to cook: a few of these, some of those, a smidgen of the other, season, pan fry, serve. However. I did pay attention to what I was cooking by instinct ... expressly so that I could share with you, my faithful readers, Steve's Own Latke Recipe.

To wit:

The Ingredients

3 russet potatoes, medium size
1/2 of a red onion, medium size
3 eggs, large
4 heaping tablespoons flour
salt & pepper to taste
cooking oil, for frying

The Prep

Peel and grate the potatoes and the half-onion into a large steel bowl. The grated root vegetables will be pretty wet, so you want to squeeze out the water, then spread them on a towel (I use a clean dishtowel) and roll it up tight, pressing and squeezing to force the water out of the vegetables and into the towel. Then return the potatoes and onion to the bowl.

(You're going to need to wash that towel now, by the way. You've already added the starch.)

Next, crack the eggs and mix them in with a spoon. Sprinkle the flour over the mixture, one spoonful at a time, mixing in-between. Add salt and pepper to taste. I'm pretty generous with both. No, I'm sorry, I can't really be more precise than that.

Cooking 'em up

Heat a pan. I use a non-stick, 12" frying pan. Once the pan is hot, add oil. I use canola oil; olive oil tastes nice, yes, but its smoking point is pretty low so it's not a great choice for frying, not even in a pan. How much oil should you use? Enough to get the whole surface of the cooking pan slick -- more than a film, less than a pool. When you put the latkes in the pan, you want them to kind of slide around easily, to skate on the oil slick as it were, but not to be sunk in a pool of cooking oil, not even a shallow one. Or maybe you're looking for something more like deep-fried? Look, it's cooking, there's room for judgment calls.

Let the oil get hot, but don't let it smoke.

Form pancakes with your hands. Yes, it's messy. Get into it! Six big latkes or perhaps eight or ten smaller ones can be had from the ingredient quantities listed above (check out the photo). I cooked up two batches of three latkes each, and put the first ones on a paper-towel lined pizza pan in the oven to stay warm while I cooked the second batch. You want to let the latkes get nice and crispy on one side, then turn them over. You'll see the grated potato turning decidedly brown as the time to turn them approaches. It's okay to peek to check for doneness. After flipping the latkes the 2nd side will cook faster than the first.

The meal

I'm not big on sour cream, but don't let that stop you. Apple sauce is the perfect accompaniment to latkes in my book.

Enjoy! Even if you don't celebrate Chanukah, or have a preferred spelling of the word.


  1. My grandmother used to say a smidgeon of this, a bit of that, too! Oh - we have the same grandma!
    Happy Chanukah to you, my cuz! I believe we have the honor of my stepdaughter to cook latkes for us on Xmas day!

  2. @Debbie -- funny how all that's related, eh?

    Can't say we'll have much time for latkes on Christmas Day, that being the time for a traditional movie + Chinese dinner...