Any cook who has made latkes has struggled with latkes. The traditional potato pancakes are a specialty of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah, which begins this year on Dec 22. Jewish delis do a brisk business because home cooks are so fed up with the hot oil, latkes that sometimes fall apart, a potato batter that turns an unappetizing gray. And the mess! I've tried latkes so many ways I can't begin to list them. I will only mention a recent batch of latkes I made last week using frozen hash brown potatoes. They were roundly criticized by family and friends. (Let the record show that they were devoured.)
Back to fresh potatoes that you grate yourself. Here is my latest iteration of latkes, whose most important ingredient is the oil in which they're fried. As the story is told, for eight days a little oil burned in Jerusalem's ancient Temple, which is why the holiday is eight days long.
For these latkes, you mix a batter ― except for grated raw potatoes — that includes a cold, boiled, grated golden potato. You’ve got chopped onion, eggs, flour, salt, and pepper in a bowl that you can refrigerate until it’s time to make latkes. Right before you fry them, grate russet potatoes, which are nice and starchy, using a food processor and the grating disk (unless you want to do it your bubbe’s way by hand on a box grater). Stir the raw potatoes into the cooked potato batter. Yes, it will discolor slightly, but it won’t be dreadful.
In any case, work quickly to fry them in hot vegetable oil, drain the latkes on paper towels, and keep them warm in the oven. Or, try this — fry the latkes in advance and reheat them on a parchment-lined baking sheet for 10 minutes in a 400-degree oven. Regrettably, there are few remedies for the mess of frying, though some cooks tell me they cover the other burners with foil to catch splatters.
A few tips: You’ll need to boil the golden potato a day in advance, so it’s cold and firm when you grate it. The best way to make the batter is to chop the onion first in the food processor, remove the onion and the knife blade, then fit the processor with the grating disk. Have two skillets going at once, if you can. To get long raw potato shreds that turn lacy in the skillet, start with long pieces of potato (a russet, quartered lengthwise and set vertically in the feed tube is ideal). Before you add the raw potatoes to the onion mixture, have a thin film of oil in the skillets heating over a low burner to give it a head start.
As soon as you grate the potatoes, turn the skillet heat up to medium-high. Fry the potato cakes and let them get really brown and crisp. You may have a line forming at the stove for the first pancakes out of the pan. When latkes are good, they’re outstanding.
Sheryl Julian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.