In Hannukah parlance, a miracle is something small stretched large. Squeezed for resources following their military travails in the second century B.C., the Maccabeans had only a single-day crock of oil with which to rededicate the Second Temple of Jerusalem. But somehow, that oil kept the candles burning for eight long nights.
But in the kitchen, where the realization that you’re low on olive oil comes only after you’re knuckle-deep in yolky starch, miracles don’t come easy.
If there’s an appetizer worthy of such worry, it certainly isn’t the humble latke—a traditional holiday fritter that is both exceptionally simple and infinitely hackable. All you need to do is understand its inner workings.
To prove this, I built @everylatke, a bot that will tweet out a randomly generated latke recipe every hour over the duration of Hannukah (go ahead and follow, it doesn’t bite). Using data from countless recipes as well as intelligence supplied by Liz Neumark, head of New York’s annual Latke Festival (who, as her pedigree suggests, knows her latkes), I developed a simple formula for latke perfection that serves as the the bot’s backbone. None of these recipes have been tested, but no matter — by the end of this post you will have the tools to generate your own perfect potato patty, and have a feel for when you may need to autocorrect.
If a bot barely hours old can do it, certainly you can too. Bear with me, and together we’ll stretch both your pantries and your imaginations. I think you’ll find that the miracle was inside you all along.
At minimum, all you need is something to base your latkes around, some glue to hold it all together, and a fat to fry it in. After that, the sky’s the limit.
~1.5 lb vegetables
- If you’re a potato latke purist, go with Russets— their high starch content will strengthen the crispness of your pancake.
- Squeeze out the excess moisture from your grated potatoes for the same reason. Some sticklers will let this juice sit for a bit, scoop out the starchy residue, and add it back into the potato, but I say skip it.
- Despite what your bubbe might have told you, no need to grate by hand. A food processor will save you a lot of time, unless you (like me) are looking for a good onion-induced cry.
- If you’re feeling more inventive, or just want to purge your pantry, anything goes. Shred cabbage, brussels sprouts, apples, celeriac, or carrots. For veggies with a higher water content, such as eggplant or zucchini, salt them after shredding, leave them for 10 minutes to sweat, and drain the excess liquid. Alternatively, roast and dice a butternut squash. Dice, steam, and mash cauliflower. Blanch, drain, and chop greens. Mix and match. Feel free to add some cooked grain too — farro, millet, quinoa — up to half of your portion of vegetables.
- Your eggs help bind the patty together—and egg on the browning process.
- I’ve seen a tremendous range of egg use in latke recipes. As a general rule, more eggs will make your fritters more cakey. Be a bit more liberal with them (3-4 eggs) if you want a pancake that leans less latke, more frittata; hold back (1 egg) if you want to really feel the vegetable strands in your teeth.
- To go vegan, swap out your eggs for egg substitute. And if you’re desperate, you can do just fine with some apple sauce, cooked oats, or a drop of non-dairy milk. Just make sure your patties hold together and I promise everything will be ok.
- Think of the starch as your moisture regulator — it will both absorb the excess water from your shredded vegetables, and form a protective, brown crust around your latke, keeping the right amount of liquid inside.
- Add just enough to give your latke some body, but don’t go overboard. A starchier base will do some of the binding work for you.
- Some people swear by matzo meal, others by potato starch, others still by bread crumbs. Pure starches are, unsurprisingly, starchier than flour, so they’ll give you a better crisp. But don’t make an extra shopping trip for this — a sprinkling of white flour will do just fine. Chickpea flour is another great gluten-free option. Add a teaspoon of baking powder to give it some rise.
- There are two things to keep in mind when picking a fat in which to fry your latkes: the smoke point, and the taste.
- The smoke point is the temperature at which an oil will begin to break down, and the resulting compounds are released in the form of smoke that can get into your food and affect the flavor. When frying, the goal is to maintain a high heat, and picking the right fat for the job is important. Olive oil is the traditional choice, but it has a relatively low smoking point (350°), so you may want to avoid it unless you’re willing to settle for a slower-cooked, lighter crust. Safflower and refined peanut oils have high smoke points and neutral flavors, while corn oils, well, tastes of corn. Butter is a no-go (225°), but if you clarify it into ghee, it can be a perfect choice for that baked-potato craving.
- Some people swear by shmaltz, so if that’s your thing, gezuntheit.
- Add enough fat to coat ⅛ inch of your pan, no matter the size. Be sure to preheat both the pan and the fat. If you drop a strand of your mixture in and it begins to sizzle, you’re good to go. Keep an eye on the heat as you go.
- If you find that your first few latkes are falling apart when you take them off the pan, adjust your binding agents a bit until it holds better.
- Bulbs! I hesitate to call this an extra, because it is such a simple, time-honored way to easily elevate your recipe. Throw in shredded onions, scallions, leeks, chives, or shallots. If you have the time, go ahead and sauté the onions until they’re translucent to bring out their character.
- (I’ll go ahead and parenthetically share this blasphemous tip from latke guru Neumark: “let me also confess that a half package of onion soup mix produces very delicious latke; mix it in with the potatoes and egg and skip the flour, onions and salt.”)
- Don’t forget your spices and herbs — garlic, parsley, basil, cumin, zaatar, etc. Salt and pepper generously.
- This is a little-known fact, but before they came to potato-obsessed Eastern Europe in the 19th century, latkes were built on a base of ricotta cheese, inspired by a similar Italian pancake. So shamelessly sprinkle your ricottas, your parmesans, your fetas, your cheddar and goat cheeses, and call it an homage.
No offense to apple sauce and sour cream, but the latke topping deserves an upgrade. Here are some suggestions from Neumark—along with some recipes from across the web that made me look.
- Horseradish cream cheese
- Pickled Carrot & Tzatziki Sauce
- Smoked Goat Cheese Creme & Sage Oil
- Apple Chutney
- Ginger-Infused Creme Fraiche & Spearmint