Latkes are potato pancakes that are perhaps best known as traditional Hanukkah food. Made with potatoes, onion and matzah or breadcrumbs, these crispy treats symbolize the miracle of Hanukkah because they are fried in oil. You can learn more about Hanukkah food traditions in: All About Hanukkah Food Traditions.
According to the Hanukkah story, when the Jewish Temple was seized by the Syrian-Greeks in 168 B.C.E. it was defiled by being dedicated to the worship of Zeus. Eventually the Jews revolted and regained control of the Temple. In order to rededicate it to God they had to light the Temple's menorah for eight days, but to their dismay they discovered that only one day's worth of oil remained in the Temple. Nevertheless they lit the menorah and to their surprise that small portion of holy oil lasted the full eight days. In commemoration of this miracle, every year Jews light Hanukkah menorahs (called hanukkiyot) and eat fried foods such as sufganiyot (jelly donuts) and latkes. The Hebrew word for latkes is levivot, which is what these tasty treats are called in Israel.
There is a folk proverb that says latkes serve another purpose as well: to teach us that we cannot live by miracles alone. In other words, miracles are wondrous things, but we cannot wait for miracles to happen. We have to work towards our goals, feed our bodies and nourish our souls in order to live fulfilling lives.
Every community, indeed every family, has their favorite latke recipe that is passed from generation from generation. But the underlying formula is the same in that nearly all latke recipes have some combination of grated potatoes, onion, egg and flour, matzah or breadcrumbs. After mixing the batter small portions of it are fried in vegetable oil for a few minutes. The resulting latkes are served hot, often with applesauce or sour cream. Some Jewish communities add sugar or sesame seeds to the batter.
The Latke-Hamentaschen Debate
The latke-hamentaschen debate is a humorous academic debate that began at the University of Chicago in 1946 and has since become a tradition in some circles. Hamentaschen are triangular cookies served every year as part of the Purim celebration and essentially the "debate" pits the two holiday foods against each other. Participates will take turns arguing about the relative superiority or inferiority of each food. For instance, in 2008 Harvard law professor Alan M. Dershowitz accused latkes of increasing "America’s dependence on oil."
Our Favorite Latke Recipe
- 7-8 large russet potatoes, peeled
- 1 1/2 medium onions
- 6 large eggs, beaten
- 3/4 cup matzo meal or bread crumbs
- 2 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 3/4 cup canola oil (for frying)
- Applesauce and sour cream, for serving
Directions: Grate the potatoes and onion into a bowl or pulse in food processor (careful not to puree it). Drain any excess liquid from the bowl and add the eggs, matzo meal, salt and pepper. Mix all of the ingredients together to thoroughly combine them.
In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Spoon the latke mixture into the hot oil forming small pancakes, using 3-4 tablespoons of batter for each pancake. Cook until the underside is golden, about 2 to 3 minutes. Flip the latke over and cook until the other side is golden and the potatoes are cooked through, about 2 more minutes.
One way to tell that your latkes are done is by sound: when it stops sizzling it’s time to flip it over. Allowing a latke to remain in the oil after the sizzling has stopped will result in greasy, oil-logged latkes (which is not what you want).
When done, remove the latkes from the oil and transfer them to a plate lined with paper towel to drain. Pat off the excess oil once they have cooled a bit, then serve hot with applesauce or sour cream.