Don’t get me wrong. I love my mother’s latkes. She learned them from her mother who was a marvelous cook, kept a kosher kitchen in Brooklyn in the 1920s and ’30s, made her own Shabbos wine using Concord grapes from upstate New York and won at poker every Saturday night. I mean, my grandmother’s latkes: How much more authentic can you get? And they are excellent, potatoes and onions grated through the smallest holes of the hand grater, seasoned with onion tears and skin of knuckles, fried in the same pan every year for seven decades. Soft on the inside and crispy on the edges, a little greasy and wonderful re-heated in the oven the next day.
That said, today I’m making a confession: I also really love super crispy, long-potato-string latkes, thin and crackly and wafting a fresh fried potato scent. And I love latkes made of luscious fall roots, grated parsnips and celery root and carrots and beets, madly colored with butternut squash and laced with the foresty flavors of chanterelle mushrooms, leeks, fennel and pears. Since these are not as crispy, I like to honor the memory of Judith, who, in the second century B.C., lopped off the head of the evil Assyrian general Holofernes after plying him with cheese cakes and wine, and serve these with very crisp fried cheese “cookies,” simply made with grated Parmesan.
The best accompaniments for crazy quilt latkes such as these are not necessarily the traditional (and again, completely yummy) homemade cinnamon-scented apple sauces of my youth, but more tart relishes and chutneys, sparkling with cranberries, pomegranate and candied ginger. The sour cream stays — it’s always completely perfect with latkes. But if you can find it, instead try my favorite, quark (a lighter, German-style cultured cheese made with buttermilk) and add a new, tarter, lower-fat accompaniment to your latkes.
Another dearly held memory treat from my mom and childhood is of Hanukkah sugar cookies, rolled thin, cut into Hanukkah shapes and baked, filling the house with their characteristic caramel-y smell and frosted by kids with really messy blue and white icing and sprinkles. I wouldn’t trade the memory of messing up the kitchen every year with Hanukkah sugar cookies for anything. Yet I must admit that I have a more sophisticated “chef’s” favorite Hanukkah cookie to share, a delicate shortbread made with cream cheese and ground nuts, decorated before baking with a thin egg wash and twinkling white and blue baking sugars.
So, please indulge my chef’s palate and enjoy making these Hanukkah delights this year!
Very Crispy Potato Latkes
2 lbs. russet or Yukon gold potatoes
1 medium onion
3 egg whites (you can use the yolks to make the shortbread cookies)
3 to 6 Tbs. matzoh meal or all-purpose flour
2 tsp. kosher or sea salt
1 tsp. fresh cracked white or black peppercorns
Light flavored oil for frying (canola is good)
Peel and grate the potatoes through the large holes of a box grater. Toss into ice water (ice removed) and swish around briefly to remove the starch and firm them up. Drain, spread on a large, clean dishtowel, roll up the towel and press and squeeze out as much moisture as possible; the potato strings must be very dry. Grate the onion on the large holes of the grater and mix with the potatoes.
Beat the egg whites until foamy, add to the potatoes and stir in the flour or matzoh meal and the salt and pepper.
Heat 1-1/2” oil over medium heat until shimmering on the surface and a few strings of potato cook golden brown in about a minute. Put 2 large tablespoons of potatoes per latke into the oil and press flat with the back of a spatula. Let bubble and fry on one side until deep golden brown, then turn and cook until the same color on the other side. The second side will cook more quickly than the first because the latke has heated up inside during frying. Drain well on absorbent towels and serve right out of the pan. You can freeze them on a cookie sheet, then store in a Ziploc bag for several days. Re-heat in a 400º oven.
Serve with applesauce and sour cream, or with pears or quince, peeled, seeded and sautéed with cinnamon and vanilla.
Makes 10 to 12 latkes
Crazy Quilt Latkes
1/2 lb. each of your choice of: Parsnips, celery root, yams, beets, butternut squash, carrots, sweet potatoes and/or fennel (anise) bulb to make 2 lbs.
For each 2 lbs. of vegetables:
1/2 large yellow onion
3 large green onions or 1 large leek, white and light green parts only
1/2 lb fresh chanterelle, shiitake (remove the stems) or portabella mushrooms
4 egg whites
1/4 cup to 1/3 cup all purpose flour or matzoh meal
2-1/2 tsp. kosher or sea salt
1 tsp. freshly cracked white or black peppercorns
Pure olive oil, light olive oil or canola oil for frying
Peel the root vegetables and halve and core the fennel bulb (if using). Peel the yellow onion, halve and wash the leek well (if using), clean the green onions. Clean the mushrooms and slice into thin strips.
Grate the root vegetables on the large holes of a box grater, thinly slice the fennel bulb and the leeks or green onions, and grate the yellow onion. Mix all together and toss in the flour or matzoh meal. Beat the egg whites until foamy and stir into the vegetable mixture and season with the salt and pepper.
Heat 1-1/2” oil over medium heat until shimmering on the surface and a few strings of potato cook golden brown in about a minute. Put 2 large tablespoons of potatoes per latke into the oil and press flat with the back of a spatula. Let bubble and fry on one side until deep golden brown then turn and cook until the same color on the other side. Drain well on absorbent towels. You can freeze them on a cookie sheet, then store in a Ziploc bag for several days. Re-heat in a 350º oven.
Serve with crisp Parmesan “cookies,” sour cream or quark and pomegranate-cranberry relish, arranged on plates or platters to show off their colors.
Makes about 12 large latkes
Crisp Parmesan “Cookies”
8 oz grated fresh Parmesan, Romano, Assiago or any hard aged grating cheese
Heat a non-stick pan over medium-low heat. Sprinkle 1/2 oz (about 2 tablespoons) of cheese in an even 3” circle on the surface of the pan. Let the cheese melt and bubble briefly, then lift out carefully with a spatula and place on a cookie sheet covered with paper toweling. Let cool and become firm and crisp. Repeat with the remaining cheese. Voila! Lacy, crisp cheese cookies!
Makes about 12 3” crisps
Cranberry Pomegranate Relish
2 cups pure pomegranate juice (not syrup or pomegranate molasses)
2 cups fresh cranberries
8 pitted dates, chopped
1/2 cup honey
1/2 tsp. anise seed
1/4 cup candied ginger, chopped
1/4 cup candied mango or papaya, sliced into strips (available in bulk at Central Market)
1 tsp. vanilla
Combine pomegranate juice, cranberries, dates and anise seed in a 2-quart non-aluminum saucepan. Bring to a boil and let simmer for 30 minutes, adding 1/2 cup water after 15 minutes. Add the honey, ginger, mango or papaya and vanilla and continue cooking until the mixture thickens to a thick syrup, stirring often to prevent scorching. Cool completely, stirring as the relish thickens. Chill. Adjust flavor with lemon, lime or grapefruit juice and/or zest, or more pomegranate juice as desired.
Makes about 3-1/2 cups
Cream Cheese Almond Shortbread Hanukkah Cookies
1/2 lb. butter
8 oz. cream cheese
1 cup powdered sugar
3/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted 5 or 6 minutes at 350º
1 tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp. salt
1-3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 large egg beaten with
1 Tbs. milk
Blue and white crystal baking sugar for decorating
Grind the almonds and powdered sugar together in the bowl of a food processor until very finely ground. Set aside. Cream the butter and cream cheese together in the food processor bowl until completely blended and fluffy, stopping to scrape down the sides once or twice. Add the nut mixture, vanilla and salt and pulse to combine completely. Add the flour and pulse, combining until just mixed. Scrape out of the bowl and divide into 3 discs. Wrap each one in plastic wrap and chill for at least 2 hours or as much as 2 days.
Roll out each disc until about 1/4” thick on a lightly floured counter. Cut with Hanukkah cookie cutters to make stars, dreidels, candles, etc. Place on a very lightly greased or parchment-lined cookie sheet, brush each with the egg-milk mixture and sprinkle with the blue and white decorating sugars in patterns or as sprinkles.
Bake at 325º until firm, set and very lightly golden, 10 to 12 minutes. Cool on the cookie sheet or carefully remove to racks to cool completely. Makes about 2-1/2 dozen 2” cookies.