It’s still Hanukkah, which means it’s still acceptable – encouraged, even – to painstakingly grate a mess of potatoes into long, ropy strands, plunge them into ice-cold water, squeeze the living daylights out of them, bind them together just barely with eggs and flour, fry them in copious amounts of oil, slather them with sour cream and applesauce, and call it dinner.
Acceptable and encouraged, maybe — but nobody would blame you if you’re exhausted just from reading the previous paragraph.
Latkes are the perfect celebratory holiday food: delicious, comforting, flagrantly unhealthy and, of course, enough of a pain in the ass that you’ll probably only get it together to make them once a year.
You’ve got to grin and bear it, though, because latkes are always better homemade, full stop. There’s a reason those you’ll find in a restaurant or, God forbid, the frozen foods aisle are likely to be labeled “potato pancakes;” they’re usually heavy, dense hockey pucks, inevitably mealy and far too large. In my mind, the ideal latke is crisply golden-brown on the outside and creamy within, with a moppy texture that’s unmistakably potato-forward — and small enough that you won’t feel (too) bad about eating at least four.
It looks, in other words, like it was made using Nonnie’s recipe –which includes an innovation that’s surprisingly rare among latke-making methods.
Other recipes will call for you to soak, drain, and squeeze potato strands, then use the potato starch that collects at the bottom of the squeezin’ bowl to bind the latkes together. This is utter madness. It’s a whole lot easier to do as Nonnie does and simply make a batter out of eggs, a tiny bit of flour, and one additional small potato — all pulverized into an enticingly yellow slurry via food processor — then add that back to the squeezed potatoes.
So long as you get as much water as possible out of the strands that make up the bulk of the latkes, you’ll be left with a sturdy mixture that cooks up like a dream — provided you don’t wimp out on well-oiling your griddle, and that you make sure to wait until the latkes are fully browned on their first side before flipping.
Clearly, I have a lot of opinions about latkes. (Don’t even get me started on alt-monstrosities made of things like zucchini or carrots or sweet potatoes. TL;DR: They might taste good, but they’re not latkes.) I’ve also got strong feelings about what should accompany them — full-fat sour cream (you’re doing this once a year! Live a little!) and a homemade, blush-colored applesauce, recipe courtesy of my other grandmother. It’s not a recipe so much as a method, really — and either way, if you’ve never made applesauce before, I promise you’re going to be amazed by how simple it is.
A lot simpler than the goddamn latkes.
Latkes; main text Nonnie’s, italicized asides my own
4 large potatoes [You want to use the starchy kind, a.k.a. the potato you immediately imagine when someone says the word “potato.” Waxy potato salad-type potatoes are no good here. Potato.]
1 small potato
1 large onion
1 tablespoon flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
Salt and pepper
With food processor: Grate large potatoes and plunge immediately into enough cold water to cover. [Or, if your food processor’s grater is as unreliable as mine: Grate them all by hand, you poor bastard.] Place remaining ingredients in processor and process to make a batter. Place batter in a large bowl.
Drain potatoes into a colander lined with cheesecloth. Squeeze as much liquid as possible out of grated potatoes and place in large bowl of batter. [You’ll get even more liquid out — which is essential to making latkes that are properly crisp — by putting large handfuls into the cheesecloth and squeezing like you’ve never squozen before.] Mix well.
Heat 1/3-1/2 cup oil in a large skillet [or a griddle, if you’ve got one] and drop batter by large spoonful into hot oil. [After you drop them, flatten the middles a bit with the back of the spoon to ensure they’re the right shape. More surface area to fry = more crispy bits.]
Fry until brown and crisp on one side. Turn and brown on the other side. Turn only once. [Intend to have the whole latke-making process done before your guests arrive to find dinner fully prepared and their hostess dressed, freshly coiffed, and relaxing with a glass of wine. Fail miserably.]
As pancakes brown, remove to heated platter and keep warm in a very low (140-200) oven until all batter is used and pancakes are to be served. [Try to swat your guests’ hands away from the platter until you’re ready to serve, but know that you’ll be fighting a losing battle.]
Applesauce; main text Grandma’s, italicized asides my own
6-8 MacIntosh apples [For a slightly more complex mixture, you might want to substitute a few MacIntoshes with tarter varieties like Honeycrisp or Pink Lady]
1 cup water [It won’t seem like enough to cover all those apple chunks, because it’s not — you’re not boiling them, just giving them enough liquid to break down and cook in their own juices. Mmm, juices]
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Sugar to taste [Don’t bother with it; I didn’t]
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, optional
Core apples and cut into quarters, leaving skin on. Place them in a heavey saucepan with the water and lemon juice. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down slightly and simmer 30 minutes to break down apples and thicken. [Make sure you stir them around every now and then to ensure the top layer gets cooked as much as the bottom layer. The resulting pot mush will look fascinatingly gross.]
Take off the heat and put through a food mill or strainer. [Or, if you’re a lazy millennial, use an immersion blender instead.] Stir in the sugar and cinnamon, if using. [But seriously, don’t use sugar.]
The verdict: Like you really don’t know how I feel about these recipes already.
P.S. If you make the sauce and latkes as written, you’ll end up with a metric ton of applesauce (which keeps for awhile!) and enough latkes to feed six people comfortably… even the one who quietly devours eight and hopes nobody else will notice. (Ahem, Ben.)