At my college, the annual Latke-Hamantaschen debate drew standing-room only crowds. Each year, two popular philosophy professors held forth on the relative merits of these holiday foods so central to Jewish tradition.
At the time, I found the debate comical (it was intentionally lighthearted and funny), but mostly rhetorical. After all, it was obvious to me that hamantaschen were far superior. With tender, triangular pastry and sweet, peekaboo fillings, hamantaschen won my heart in a way greasy fried latkes never could. And there's a simple reason why. In all my years of latke-eating, I'd never had a latke that was truly transcendent. They were either too thick, or pasty, or half-raw in the middle, or all of the above. They weren't offensive, but they just weren't that good. Eating a mediocre latke was like eating a Fed Ex box that had spent the night in the rain.
When I met my friend Alison, things changed. A few families, including mine, gathered for what was the first of many Hanukkah parties we would share together in the years to come. Alison and our friend Julia arrived early, bearing potatoes, onion, matzoh meal, and the kicker: Alison's traditional latke recipe. There was nothing earthshattering about the recipe, but for a food that's all about balance and proportion - the right amount of potato to onion, the right amount of binder, the right amount to dole out for each pancake - it did the trick. I also watched her squeeze the living daylights out of the vegetables before she added the other ingredients, a step about which many latke-makers are a bit too relaxed. You want to squeeze that mixture until it weeps its very being into your paper towels.
The other secret? I'll tell you two. First, you need to watch your oil like a hawk. If it's not hot enough, your latkes will absorb the oil and become flaccid. If it's too hot, they'll char. Tune that stove dial up and down like a radio knob, adjusting its volume until it's pitch perfect. Second, the moment you remove the latkes from the oil and set them on paper towels, salt those babies. If you wait until later to perform this crucial task, the salt will never become one with the latkes.
Happy Hanukkah. I hope your week is filled with light, and your platters overflow with crispy, transcendent latkes.
Cheryl Sternman Rule is the voice behind 5 Second Rule and author of the forthcoming RIPE: A Fresh, Colorful Approach to Fruits and Vegetables (Running Press, April 2012).
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