The Yiddish word “latke” is said to originate from the term for “little oily.” For many families, it’s an apt description of what has come to be the standard American Ashkenazi Hanukkah food: the crispy, fried, potato pancake.
But there is more to the story of why we eat fried foods on Hanukkah, and what we eat.
The tradition of frying foods to celebrate the miracle of the oil lasting eight days goes back to at least the 14th century, when Italian Jews cooked up the first recorded instance of Hanukkah latkes — cheese pancakes fried in olive oil. Around the Mediterranean, foods usually were fried in butter or olive oil, but Jews in Central and Eastern Europe did not have access to olive oil, so the area’s holiday pancakes (made from wheat, buckwheat, or vegetables such as grated radishes or turnips) were cooked in butter or rendered goose or chicken fat.
Though there is no precise date marking the debut of potatoes as the classic latke ingredient, Central and East Europeans did not commonly eat potatoes until the late mid-1800s, when crop failures forced the adaptation of the New World ingredient previously thought fit only for animal feed.
Dairy dishes are associated with Hanukkah because of a misdating of the story of Judith, who slew the Assyrian enemy general Holofernes after putting him to sleep with a combination of salty cheese and copious amounts of wine. While the origins of frying foods for the holiday is associated with the Temple’s rededication and the eight days of oil, Hanukkah also coincides with the end of the ancient Israel olive harvest. In some areas, it was the time of year to slaughter animals, resulting in lots of goose fat and later chicken fat to use in frying latkes.
I focused on frying up “little oily” foods with New World ingredients such as potatoes, tomatoes, corn and zucchini to develop a few new recipes for this year’s holiday. The first night is Sunday, Dec. 2.
Sautéed Polenta Slices with Fried Tomato Sauce is a weeknight invention, inspired by a convenience food, tubes of cooked polenta (a fine-grained cornmeal) found in many grocery stores. Sliced and sautéed in olive oil, the polenta is a quick Hanukkah alternative to potato latkes. The Fried Tomato Sauce is cooked until it is jamlike and lightly sweet, and it would also work well as an unconventional topping for traditional potato latkes. This recipe is gluten- and egg-free.
I combined the legacies of cheese latkes and Ashkenazi vegetable pancakes for the Cheese and Zucchini Fritters. Serve them warm and gooey with a squeeze of lemon juice and a swirl of spiced mayonnaise.
The recipe for Mashed Potato Latkes with an Asian Twist is based on the Japanese potato croquette. Moist on the inside and crisp on the outside, they make a very nice accompaniment to stews and saucy pot roasts or briskets. The recipe calls for panko-style breadcrumbs, which are larger and flakier than regular breadcrumbs.
I am also sharing the recipe for my Kramer Family Latkes, which I make at least once during the holiday no matter what else I fry up. These are the traditional latkes in our house and have evolved over the years. I add garlic and we like the taste and texture of the potato peel, so my spuds are unpeeled. There is also an egg-free variation for vegans and others who avoid eggs. If you prefer, peel the potatoes and omit the garlic.
Sautéed Polenta Slices with Fried Tomato Sauce
- 2 Tbs. plus 3 Tbs. olive or vegetable oil
- 2 cups onion “half moons” (see notes)
- 1 Tbs. finely chopped fresh garlic
- 1/8 tsp. ground cloves
- ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
- ¼ tsp. ground cardamom
- ½ tsp. sugar, or to taste
- 1 tsp. salt, or to taste
- 1/8 tsp. paprika or cayenne, or to taste
- 3 cups chopped fresh tomatoes, halved cherry tomatoes or canned diced tomatoes
- About 2-4 Tbs. juice saved from chopping tomatoes (or reserved from canned tomatoes) or water
- 1 tube or roll (16 to 18 oz.) of commercially prepared cooked polenta (see notes)
- ¼ cup fresh chopped mint or parsley
Heat 2 Tbs. oil in large, deep sauté or fry pan over medium-low heat. Sauté onions until browned and very soft, stirring often. Raise heat to medium and add garlic, sautéing until golden. Stir in cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, sugar, salt and paprika. Sauté for a minute, then add tomatoes and 2 Tbs. reserved juice. Raise heat to high. Sauté, stirring often, until tomatoes are thick and jammy, adding more of the reserved liquid if necessary. The finished sauce should be very thick. Taste and add more sugar, salt and/or paprika to taste. Keep warm or at room temperature until polenta slices are ready.
Unwrap polenta, drain off any liquid and pat dry. Slice into ½-inch rounds. Heat remaining oil in large fry pan over medium-low to medium heat. Working in batches if necessary, sauté polenta on both sides until lightly colored and warmed through. (The slices can be fragile, so handle them gently). Drain on paper towels. Place rounds on serving plate, top with Fried Tomato Sauce and garnish with mint.
If desired, polenta and sauce can be made ahead and reheated together in oven or microwave, then topped with mint. (Or make just the sauce ahead, reheat and serve atop the freshly sautéed polenta.)
Notes: To prep onion, quarter then thinly slice a medium-large onion. Tubes of cooked polenta can be found in many supermarkets and specialty food stores. They are shelf-stable and usually near the dried pasta.
Cheese and Zucchini Fritters
Makes 12-14 fritters
- 3 medium-large zucchinis
- 1 tsp. salt plus additional to taste
- ½ cup grated onion
- ¼ tsp. cayenne, optional
- ½ tsp. ground black pepper
- ½ tsp. finely minced or grated lemon zest
- 2 large eggs, beaten
- 3 cups (packed) shredded Monterey Jack or white cheddar
- ¼ cup flour
- Vegetable oil for frying
- Toppings (see below)
Grate or shred zucchinis. You should have 2½-3 cups. Place in strainer and sprinkle with 1 tsp. salt. Stir well and let sit for 20-30 minutes. Press down on the zucchini to help squeeze out any remaining liquid. Discard liquid. Wrap zucchini in clean dish towel and press until the shreds are dry.
Combine zucchini with onion, cayenne, black pepper, lemon zest, eggs and cheese. Stir in flour. Let sit 5 minutes. Heat 1 inch of oil in large, deep-sided skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat. Take a large pinch of the batter, fry until golden on both sides. Drain on paper towels and let cool a bit. Taste and add more salt to batter and adjust other seasonings if needed. Remove skillet from heat until ready to fry the fritters.
Reheat oil as directed above. Wet or oil hands. Take 3-4 Tbs. batter and place between your hands. Press and form into patty (squeezing out any excess moisture into another container) and slip the fritter into hot oil. Repeat with until pan is filled but not overcrowded.
Fry for 1-2 minutes until the fritters are golden brown on the bottom and the tops of the fritters look “set” and no longer wet. Before flipping them, slide spatula under patties to make sure cheese is not sticking to pan. Gently flip over and fry 1-2 minutes until the other side is golden. Carefully remove from oil and drain on paper towels. Working in batches, repeat with rest of the batter.
Add more oil as needed to the pan and be sure the oil has returned to the proper temperature between batches of fritters and any addition of oil.
Serve warm with toppings as desired.
Toppings: Try topping with chopped green onion or parsley and serving with lemon wedges. Or top with a sprinkle of smoked paprika or a swirl of mayonnaise mixed with cayenne (or Sriracha sauce) to taste.
Mashed Potato Latkes with an Asian Twist
Makes about 10-12
- 7-8 small- to medium-size new, red or Yukon potatoes, unpeeled
- ¼ tsp. plus 1 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. grated fresh ginger
- ½ tsp. black pepper
- 1 large egg, beaten
- About 3-4 Tbs. plus 2 cups flour
- About 2 cups panko-style breadcrumbs
- Vegetable oil for frying
- Lemon wedges
Cut potatoes into eighths. There should be 5½-6 cups of cut potatoes. Place in pot. Cover with water. Add ¼ tsp. salt, bring to a simmer. Simmer covered until potatoes are tender. Drain. Let cool until they can be handled.
Mash potatoes with 1 tsp. salt, ginger and black pepper until somewhat smooth but still a bit lumpy, removing any large pieces of potato peel if desired. Stir in egg. Mix in 3 Tbs. flour. If very wet, add additional flour by the tablespoonful. If the batter is too dry, add water by the teaspoonful. Mixture should be stiff and hold together when shaped into a patty. If made ahead, bring to room temperature before proceeding.
Pour breadcrumbs and flour into separate rimmed large bowls or plates. Wet or oil hands and take ¼ cup of the batter and shape into a patty about 3 inches in diameter. Dip into flour, flipping it to cover both sides then dip into breadcrumbs, again covering both sides. Repeat with remaining batter. (Pat flour and breadcrumbs in place if necessary.)
Have ready a large, deep fry pan or sauté pan filled with at least 1 inch of oil on medium-high heat. To test readiness, put a bit of batter into the pan; if oil sizzles it is ready to use. Put latkes in hot oil and flatten slightly with spatula. Fry about 2 minutes on each side until golden brown. Work in batches if necessary, and be sure to add oil as needed and to let oil return to temperature after additions and between batches. Drain latkes on paper towels. Serve with lemon wedges.
Note: I really like a bit of acid with these latkes and also serve them with sliced dill pickles, or sometimes chopped Japanese vegetable pickles and/or pickled ginger. I also like them with a sprinkle of chopped green onion.
Kramer Family Latkes
Makes about 30 latkes
- 2½ lbs. baking potatoes, peeling optional
- 1 large or 2 small onions
- 2-3 large cloves garlic, minced, optional
- 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1/8 tsp. black pepper, or more to taste
- About ¼ cup matzah cake meal (or 2 to 3 Tbs. flour)
- Vegetable oil
Shred or grate the potatoes and onions. Larger shreds produce lacier latkes with rougher edges. Fine shreds or grated potatoes produce a denser, more cake-like latke. Squeeze out excess moisture. Mix in garlic, eggs, salt, pepper and matzah meal. Let sit for five minutes so mixture can absorb the meal. Add more matzah meal if mixture still seems wet.
In a very large skillet over medium-high heat, heat oil that is about ½ inch deep until it is very hot. (I drop a bit of batter in to see if it sizzles with bubbles all around.) Wet or oil hands. Take about ¼ cup of batter and squeeze out any remaining moisture with your hands (careful not to let the liquid drip back into the batter bowl). Pat into 3-inch round and then put in hot oil, or transfer to large spoon and then slide into pan. Work in batches and do not overcrowd the pancakes in the pan. Fry them until browned on both sides and crisp on the edges, pressing down occasionally with spatula to help flatten the latkes a little. Drain on brown paper bags or paper towels. Repeat until all latkes are fried. Serve with applesauce, sour cream or other toppings.
Vegan Variation: Mix ¼ cup ground flax seeds with ¾ cup water. Stir well and let sit 10 minutes before using. Increase potatoes to 3 lbs. and use 3 large garlic cloves. Substitute flax mixture for eggs. Continue as directed, but drain on parchment paper since the flax seeds will cause the latkes to stick firmly to paper towels or brown paper. (Or lightly pat them immediately after cooking with paper towels, then place directly on oiled serving platter.)
Making Ahead: Both recipes can be made ahead and reheated from room temperature in a 250-degree oven on ungreased baking sheet until warmed through.