My brother-in-law asked me a surprising question: “How many different kinds of latkes do you make at Chanukah?”
“Just the potato kind,” I said. “Why?”
“Since you prepare eight different charosets at Passover, I figured you’d make lots of exotic latkes too,” he said.
While Robbie meant this as a compliment, he caught me off guard. Since he knows I enjoy cooking and inventing recipes, he set the bar high. Yet his question got me thinking.
Why are latkes usually made from potatoes? Why are they almost exclusively served at Chanukah parties or for dinner? What’s wrong with other times of day?
Everyone loves latkes, so I thought it would be fun to create a new latke recipe for each day of Chanukah. For years I’ve had a secret desire to eat latkes all day, starting at breakfast. I wondered why no one had ever created cocktail-hour latkes. I’ve had dessert latkes, but none worth eating again.
One cold October weekend, I decided to revamp Chanukah’s signature dish, experimenting with ingredients as far flung as bananas, salmon, and chocolate.
Yet with a twinge of Jewish guilt, I questioned if it was right to take latkes so far from their roots, the lowly potato?
In Yiddish, the word latke means pancake. The definition doesn’t include a connection to potatoes. As Webster’s Dictionary notes, a pancake is a thin, flat cake of batter fried on both sides on a griddle or in a frying pan.
Although Ashkenazi Jews are famous for preparing latke batters with grated potatoes, the tuber is a relatively recent addition to their culinary repertoire.
Originating in South America, potatoes were unknown in Europe until the 16th century, when explorers brought back tuber shoots from their travels. Once planted, these shoots grew abundantly throughout Eastern and Central Europe, where produce was sparse during harsh winters. Potatoes became an inexpensive crop to farm and a staple of the Ashkenazi diet.
It didn’t take long for Jewish housewives to discover the wonders of grated potato batter sizzling in chicken schmaltz. At Chanukah, the shortening of choice was goose fat. The crunchy result is now history.
Although potatoes have proven to be a superior latke ingredient, I decided to see if other foods could enhance the Jewish pancake genre.
Since breakfast is my favorite meal, I began by dropping a dollop of yogurt into my basic flapjack recipe, creating a tender pancake as airy as a cloud. From that recipe I played around with ingredients, giving rise to three more early morning delights: fragrant Banana Latkes, dripping with maple syrup; Creamy Lemon Latkes, dusted with confectioner’s sugar; and assertive Tex-Mex Latkes, spiced with chili and cumin.
My original pancake recipe was so delicate, so I turned my attention to dessert. Two sensational confections evolved: Pumpkin Latkes, flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom; and Chocolate Chip Latkes, smothered in chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream.
Satisfied with my results so far, I had to admit I missed the texture of potato latkes. Noticing a package of fine egg noodles in my pantry, I remembered the zucchinis in my refrigerator. Together these two ingredients fried up every bit as crisp as their traditional counterpart.
My husband thought I was crazy as he observed me fry everything inside our refrigerator except the bins and the shelves. But after weeding out a few wacky flavor combinations, he reaped the benefits of tasting some amazing latkes. Asian-fusion ginger latkes dipped in soy sauce were a notable failure.
“What makes you think people want to try new latkes?” he asked, sampling the noodle pancake. “Wow. This is amazingly crisp.”
“A few days into Chanukah, potato latkes can grow tiresome,” I said.
Nibbling a salmon latke, he said, “This one is a keeper. I’d serve it with a crisp white wine or maybe champagne.”
“It’s possible there are people who’d like to entertain during Chanukah without making an elaborate meal,” I said. “They could throw an hors d’oeuvre party or just serve dessert. After attending a couple potato latke parties, some people might desire new recipes to surprise their guests.”
“I haven’t tried the Tex-Mex latkes yet,” he said.
“I thought brunch latkes would be good for people who can’t be torn from Sunday afternoon football games,” I said. “For people like you.”
He nodded, indicating that I’d whipped up another winner. “But did you ever consider working with jalepeno peppers?” he asked.
“That sounds tempting,” I said. “It’s too bad Chanukah has only eight days. There’s so little time and so many foods to fry.”
Breakfast or Brunch
Yield: 8 latkes, 4 inches in diameter
Basic Flour Latkes
3 tbsp. butter for batter, plus 2 tbsp., or more, for frying
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp. plain yogurt
1 1/4 cup 2 percent milk
1 2/3 cups flour
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1. In a small pot, melt 3 tbsp. butter. Cool briefly.
2. In a large bowl, beat egg, yogurt, milk, and melted butter until foamy.
3. Sift flour, baking powder, and salt into egg mixture.
4. With a wooden spoon, stir ingredients until well combined.
5. Melt 2 tbsp. butter in a large (12-inch diameter) skillet, preferably the no-stick variety, until butter sizzles but doesn’t burn.
6. Pour half a soup ladle of batter at a time into hot pan. When bubbles appear in batter and bottom surface turns golden brown, flip pancakes. Turn only once. Gradually add more milk to batter if it thickens while first batch cooks. Add more butter to pan, if needed.
7. Serve pancakes immediately. If making several batches, pile pancakes onto an ovenproof dish and keep warm in a 200-degree oven until ready to serve.
Mash 1 banana (preferably over-ripe) with a fork until mushy. Add banana to step 3 of Basic Flour Latke recipe and follow remaining directions. Serve with maple syrup and chopped walnuts.
Creamy Lemon Latke
To step 3 of Basic Flour Latke recipe, add 1/2 cup whipped cottage cheese, 1/2 tsp. vanilla, 1/2 tsp. lemon zest, and 1 tsp. sugar. Follow remaining directions. Sprinkle confectioner’s sugar over top of latkes and serve with black cherry preserves.
To step 3 of Basic Flour Latke recipe, add 1/2 cup canned cream style corn, 2 minced garlic cloves, 1 tbsp. minced roasted red pepper (from jar), 1/2 tsp. ground cumin. and 1/2 tsp. chili powder. Fry latkes in peanut oil and follow remaining directions. Sprinkle freshly minced cilantro on latkes. Serve with sour cream.
Hors D’Oeuvres or Light Bite
Yield: 10 latkes
2 lbs. salmon, skinned, boned, and ground. (For convenience, ask your fishmonger to grind the salmon.)
1 small onion, chopped fine
2 tbsp. dill, finely minced
1/4 cup flour or matzah meal
1 egg, beaten
Kosher salt to taste
Ground pepper to taste
3 tbsp. olive oil
In a large bowl, mix together with a wooden spoon the salmon, onion, dill, flour, egg, salt, and pepper until well combined. Form salmon mixture into latkes, 3 inches in diameter. Heat oil in a large skillet on a medium flame. Fry latkes in oil until bottom surface browns, then turn latkes and brown the other side. Fry for about 6 minutes per side, or until latkes are cooked through. Serve immediately with sour cream.
Zucchini Birds’ Nest Latkes
12-oz. package fine egg noodles
4 tbsp. peanut oil, or more, if needed
1 onion, chopped
3 zucchinis, grated. If grating with a food processor, squeeze out excess liquid.
2 eggs, beaten
4 tbsp. flour
Kosher salt to taste
Ground pepper to taste
Prepare noodles according to package directions. Drain and place in a large bowl. Mix in 1 tbsp. of peanut oil. Cool briefly. Mix in remaining ingredients. Form batter into 3-inch latkes. Heat 3 tbsp. of oil in a large skillet. Fry latkes in skillet. Turn over when bottom surface is well browned. Continue frying until top is well browned too. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately.
To step 3 of Basic Flour Latke recipe, add 1/2 cup canned pumpkin, 1 tbsp. brown sugar, 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, 1/4 tsp. nutmeg, 1/4 tsp. ground cloves and 1/4 tsp. cardamom. Follow remaining directions. Serve with butter pecan ice cream.
To step 3 of Basic Flour Latke recipe, add 1/2 cup chopped semi-sweet morsels and 1 tbsp. granulated sugar. Follow remaining directions, but fry on a medium-low flame so chocolate doesn’t burn. Serve with warm chocolate sauce (or melted semi-sweet morsels) and vanilla ice cream.