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.