I am about to tell you how to make latkes that aren’t really latkes, but I’m crazy about them. They’re cheaters’ latkes because they contain potatoes but little else that goes into the classic latke batter. And they’re golden and crisp and creamy inside, everything you want in a latke.
Latkes are traditional at the Jewish holiday Hanukkah, which begins the evening of Dec. 12 and lasts for eight days. The ingredient in the recipe that makes latkes important is the oil in which they’re fried. The story told is that a small amount of oil lasted for eight days in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. While American Ashkenazi Jews eat latkes, Israelis typically fry jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot, which probably originated with Sephardic Jews, whose fritters are bimuelos in Spain, zalabia in Egypt, and zoulbia in Persia.
You can’t help but love classic latkes, but they require grating raw potatoes and moving with lightning speed so they don’t turn an uninviting gray. The raw potatoes are then mixed into a batter containing onion, eggs, flour or matzo meal, and seasoning. After years of grating raw potatoes every which way (by hand on a box grater is the worst because it can involve nicking your knuckles; a food processor is easier but the feed tube is so narrow) I decided there had to be a better way.
The Swiss have the ideal method to make fried potato cakes. They are rosti (pronounced ROOSH-tee), which are made with potatoes only so it eliminates the batter; there’s nothing wet to bind them and they’re much more delicate to fry. For rosti, you grate raw or cooked potatoes, season them, and fry. Nothing to it.
Cooking starchy russet potatoes first is the best method. Simmer them in water in large pieces in their skins. Cool, pull of the skins, and chill the potatoes until they’re cold. That makes grating easier. Then grate onto a baking sheet — keep them out of a bowl so they stay light — and sprinkle with flour, salt, and pepper. Take spoonfuls (an ice cream scoop works well), fry in oil, and serve hot. In most kitchens, this usually means right from the skillet. That part of the Hanukkah tradition is set in stone.