The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah typically arrives in December, but I start getting excited for it sometime around Labor Day. I love lighting the menorah (Hanukkah candelabra) and watching the candles' reflection, warm and comforting, in my window. And I crave the overall feeling of coziness that comes with the season. But what I long for most are the latkes — fried potato pancakes that Jewish families fry up during the eight-day holiday. Their unique mix of starch, crunch, salt, and oil is the ideal accompaniment for a frosty holiday evening.
Over the past decade or so, people have begun to experiment with their latkes. They fold other seasonal root vegetables into the mix, like grated beets, carrots, and sweet potatoes, and stir in globally-inspired spices from curry and garam masala to smoked paprika. The usual toppings of apple sauce and sour cream are also regularly swapped out for chutneys, aioli, pesto, and any number of other tasty sauces. As much as I love regular potato latkes, I am completely on board for this recent flourishing of culinary creativity.
While latkes make an ideal comfort food, their lacy edges and tender centers can also be quite elegant. (Perhaps this is why miniature potato pancakes topped with creme fraiche and caviar have gained traction as a cocktail-hour hors d'oeuvres.) Riffing off of the latke's sophisticated side, I stirred shredded fennel, fennel fronds, and lemon zest into the batter, and mixed the sour cream with freshly ground toasted caraway seeds and a bit of Dijon mustard. The result was subtly sweet, bright from the lemon, and altogether lovely — my favorite Hanukkah food, dressed up for the season.
Fennel-Lemon Latkes with Toasted Caraway Sour Cream
Makes about 15 latkes
For the sour cream:
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey
Freshly ground black pepper
For the latkes:
1 1/2 pounds fennel bulbs (about 3 medium), quartered and core removed
1/2 pound russet potatoes (about 1 medium), scrubbed and quartered (unpeeled)
1 medium onion, quartered
1/3 cup finely chopped fennel fronds
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil, for frying
First, make the sour cream. Toast the caraway seeds in a small pan set over medium heat. Cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the seeds are fragrant, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer to a spice grinder; pulse until coarsely ground. Stir the ground caraway, sour cream, mustard, and honey together in a small bowl. Add black pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight. Press mixture through a fine mesh sieve into a bowl, discarding any solids, and refrigerate until needed.
When ready to make the latkes, line a large, rimmed baking sheet with several layers of paper towel. Set aside.
Shred the fennel bulbs, potatoes, and onion in a food processor fit with a shredding blade. Working in batches, wrap shredded vegetables in a clean dish towel or several layers of paper towel and squeeze as much water as you can out of them.
Transfer the shredded, squeezed veggies to a large bowl. Add the fennel fronds, eggs, flour, salt, sugar, lemon zest, and pepper and mix until ingredients are fully incorporated.
Heat about a quarter inch of vegetable oil in a large pan set over medium-high heat until the oil is shimmering but not smoking. Scoop up a scant 1/4-cup of the batter and drop into the pan. Press gently to flatten. Repeat with another 2 to 3 latkes until the pan is full but not crowded. Cook, flipping once, until browned on both sides and cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes total.
Transfer cooked latkes to the prepared baking sheet to drain. Continue until all the batter is used up, adding additional oil to the pan if necessary and adjusting the heat if latkes are browning too quickly or not quickly enough. Serve immediately, topped with caraway sour cream
(Image credits: Leah Koenig)