Happy Hanukkah! The Jewish festival of lights starts this Saturday and runs for eight delicious, fried-food-filled days. If you're not celebrating this holiday, now's the time to start hinting about how much you love latkes to all your Jewish friends. Do this and we will feel compelled to feed you; it's just in our blood. (It's more believable if you get the pronunciation right: laht-kuh, not laht-kee.) Ever since I moved to the Bay Area twenty-two years ago, I've thrown an annual Hanukkah latke party. People invited to that very first one have started emailing me this week, wondering when and where this year's shindig will be. Anyone once invited assumes lifelong latke-party privileges. Some of my friends only know each other through this annual event, but come December, they'll greet each other like old pals.
Fried food and festivity will do that to a person. What's a latke, you ask? A grated potato-and-onion pancake, thickened with eggs and matzoh meal or flour to something much more than the sum of its hash brown-like parts. At this time of year, the usual challenge for food writers of the -baum, -stein, and -berg variety is to come up with nifty spins on tradition, ditching the typical potato base for any number of tuber, root, or squash-based concoctions.
Maybe it's different if you have a big family demanding latkes for all eight days, then roiling with potato-induced ennui by day four. In my experience, few people make latkes year-round, and few people make them more than once or twice even during Hanukkah. Really, with such rare days devoted to latkes, there's no time to get bored even with good old Bubbeleh's latkes, and no real reason, in my book, to drive yourself crazy trying to make zucchini-parmesan latkes, parsnip-celery root latkes, sweet apple latkes, and the like.
But this year, I know I'll have a few people requesting a gluten-free edition of my classic potato latkes. No problem! My solution? Just leave out the matzoh meal and add back in a little more potato, in the form of potato starch. A dry white powder similar to cornstarch, potato starch can be found in the kosher or baking section of most supermarkets (If you can't find it among the boxes of matzoh meal and potato-pancake mix, look for it with the other alternative flours in the baking or health-food sections of the supermarket.)
One of the tricks of my latke technique is to squeeze out all the excess liquid from the grated potatoes. After you've let the squeezed-out liquid sit for a few minutes, you'll find that the excess potato starch has settled down to the bottom of the bowl in a slushy, cream-colored layer. You pour off the extra liquid and mix the extra potato starch back into the potatoes.
So, since there's already potato starch in the pancakes, why not just add more of the same in lieu of the matzoh meal or flour? No need for xanthum gum or tapioca, just more of what makes the potato work so well for frying in the first place.
You can, of course, use a mixture of regular and sweet potatoes, or potatoes and rutabaga, or potatoes and parsnip, if you need such excitement from your latkes. I'd suggest a rough 3:1 ratio of potato to alternate tuber/root, and don't skimp on the salt and freshly ground pepper.
I believe, strongly, that latkes should be made to order, not frozen and reheated or made by the double-dozen and left to wilt greasily in a warm oven. This may also have something to do with why they only show up once a year at my house. Anyone wants to talk to you, they know where to find you: in front of the stove, in a grease-splatted apron.
I also vote, early and often, for homemade applesauce, which is nothing more than rough-chopped apples simmered gently in a generous splash of apple juice or apple cider until they collapse at the poke of a spoon. You can leave them unpeeled, then crank your skin-studded mass through a food mill for a smooth, rosy puree. Or you can peel beforehand and beat the cooked mixture into a chunky mash with a wooden spoon, or aim for a smoother puree with a whisk or immersion blender. People eat this up with a spoon, no sugar or cinnamon needed. I've also made lovely roasted applesauce, using Judy Rogers' Roasted Applesauce from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. Adding a generous pinch of salt to the apples as they're cooking is a nice touch when you're serving the applesauce as a part of a savory plate.
Sour cream, the other classic accompaniment, should be the real, no-additives thing (I like Clover's natural sour cream); if you don't want the fat, admit that you're kidding yourself and then go for nonfat Greek yogurt rather than fakey, creepily thickened "lite" sour cream.
Gluten-Free Latkes for Hanukkah
Potatoes can take a lot of salt and pepper. Cook a tester latke to check for seasoning before you start frying up the whole batch.
Preparation Time: 25 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes
Yield: About 20 latkes
- 4 medium-to-large baking potatoes, about 2 1/2 lbs (I like Yukon Golds or russets)
- 1 yellow onion, peeled and halved
- 2 eggs, separated
- 1/4 cup potato starch
- 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt, or to taste
- Freshly ground pepper, to taste
- Vegetable oil for frying
- Into a colander suspended over a large bowl, coarsely grate potatoes and onion using the large holes of a box grater. Squeeze and wring excess liquid out of potato mixture, either by pressing it through a ricer, wrapping and squeezing it in a clean tea towel, or just by grabbing handfuls and squeezing vigorously. Let potato mixture drain through the colander for a few minutes.
- Lift up colander and pour off excess liquid below, reserving the layer of potato starch at the bottom. Dump grated potatoes on top of potato starch, and mix thoroughly, being sure to scrape up the starch and mix well into the potatoes. Add dry potato starch, egg yolks, salt, and pepper and mix well.
- In a separate bowl, using a whisk or a hand-held electric mixer, beat egg whites to stiff peaks. Fold egg whites into potato mixture.
- In a heavy, preferably cast-iron frying pan or skillet, heat 1/4 inch of vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Drop in a shred of potato; when it sizzles and bubbles, slide in as many large spoonfuls of potato mixture as you can without crowding. Fry over medium heat, turning once, until pancakes are well-browned. Add more oil as necessary for subsequent batches, but make sure to get it good and hot before adding the potatoes.
- Drain on paper towels and serve immediately with sour cream and applesauce.