Updated: Dec 27, 2021
If you've ever been to a nationality or church festival around Pittsburgh, chances are you've eaten a potato pancake, served with sour cream or apple sauce, maybe both. If you have ever eaten at Max's Allegheny Tavern in the North Side, you would have had them served with those normal condiments plus apple butter and sauerkraut chutney.
I've eaten them at Carnegie Deli, 55th and Seventh Avenue in New York City but known by their Yiddish name latkes (pronounced laat-kuhz)--which means pancake. Also served with sour cream and apple sauce. And they were delicious!
Fun fact-- Carnegie Deli sandwiches all contain at least one pound of meat. They serve traditional Jewish fare like matzoh ball soup, chopped chicken livers and lox.
The walls were lined with autographed pictures and headshots of famous celebrities who have eaten there, from Woody Allen to Adam Sandler, who mentions the iconic deli in his "The Chanukah Song" (one of my favorite holiday songs...also Mele Kalikimaka--I will post that video when I make Christmas Pierogies)
Not so fun fact-- the midtown Manhattan deli is permanently closed. But they have other locations and ship worldwide.
Many Eastern European immigrants brought this peasant dish with them from the "old country". It was due to severe famine that they searched for better lives in The Americas. And thankfully they continued their traditions, language, culture, and cuisine. The melting pot of potato pancake recipes began.
European Jews gave potato pancakes their now famous "Latkes" Yiddish name and repurposed them from an everyday food to a holiday food for Hanukkah, also known as the eight-day Festival of Lights-- commemorating the miracle during the recovery of Jerusalem and subsequent rededication of the Second Temple during the Maccabean Revolt— where just a day's supply of oil allowed the menorah to remain lit for eight days.
Simultaneously, European Catholics brought potato pancake recipes with them, repurposing them from everyday meals to holiday food during Lent, the 40-day period during Spring in which Christians remember the events leading up to and including the death of Jesus Christ. Catholic Christians abstain from eating meat every Friday during lent as well as the beginning (Ash Wednesday) and ending (Good Friday) of lent.
Each country traditionally served different toppings with the potato pancakes:
Germany (Kartoffelpuffer)- apple sauce
Austria/Czech (Bramboracky)- apple sauce, apple butter, or sour cream
Russia - sour cream and caviar
Poland (Kartoflane)- sour cream and chives
While the possibilities of toppings are endless, I plan to experiment with ingredients like horseradish mayo, Greek yogurt or non-dairy sour cream. These traditions are passed down and remain the go-to for many families. What kind of topping would you use to dress you Latkes?
In the spirit of celebration, much like making traditional Irish food (corned beef brisket braised in Guinness Beer and colcannon --that's for another blog) on St. Patrick's Day even though my family is of Italian and Polish decent, I make traditional foods Jewish families would prepare to celebrate Hannukah-- Latkes is one of them!
Things to consider
grated raw potatoes can become gray-brown in color rather quickly. You can prevent this oxidation (from the air) by plunging the grated potatoes in acidulated water. That simply means water with acid--any sort of citrus juice (lemon, lime, orange) or vinegar. The acid will stop the browning process. I do this with apples when I cut them for my kids' school lunches or when I'm making a cheese tray. I soak the cut apples in lemon water then drain and pat dry before serving.
I've been told you can stop the oxidation process of the potatoes by grating the onions in the recipe below first, then grating the potatoes. Both the onions and potatoes go into the same bowl, mixed together and the onion juice on the potatoes stops the oxidation.
Coarsely grated potatoes make a more hash-brown like pancake while finely grated potatoes will give you a more pancake-like potato pancake/latkes. It's your preference, so try the recipe a few times in different ways and see which one you prefer.
6 medium potatoes (one pound) Idaho or Russet
2 large eggs, beaten
2/3 -1 c. canola oil
1/4 c. all-purpose flour
2 T. chopped scallion (optional)
1 t. garlic powder
1 t. salt
1 t. pepper
1/2 t. baking powder
splash (1T. vinegar for acidulated water bath)
sour cream, apple sauce or any of your favorite toppings
What To Do
prepare your acidulated water bath for the shredded potatoes and onions. Fill a bowl 3/4 way full with cold water and add vinegar.
2. Peel potatoes and remove outer brown layer of onion skin.
3. Use the shredding blade on your food processor to grate the potatoes and onions in seconds. A box grater works well too (it just requires some extra elbow grease). Immediately add grated potatoes and onions in acidulated water. Cover completely with water.
NOTE: It's an important step, the acidulated water. Don‘t skip it. The top pile of onions and potatoes were not acidulated, the bottom pile was. See how the bottom pile did not discolor.
5. Drain the potatoes and onions in a colander.
6. To get a crispy potato pancake, place the mixture in a clean kitchen towel* and squeeze out any excess water. There will be a lot--- but you want the mixture as dry as possible. When you think you got all of the water out-wring out the wash cloth some more— you will surely find more water.
7. In a large bowl, mix together the potato/onion mixture and the remaining ingredients except oil. Reserve the oil for frying.
8. In a non-stick or seasoned cast iron skillet set over a medium- medium high heat setting, heat the oil (and schmaltz**), and add 1/4 cup of pancake mix to hot oil. It should sizzle upon hitting pan. Fry each side until medium to dark, about 3 minutes. Using a spatula (or fish spatula which is flexible) flip pancakes over.
9. Remove hot crisp pancakes from the oil and drain on paper towel. Add a sprinkle of finishing salt and scallions. Serve or keep warm in oven.
* I use flour sack towels (I got mine at Sam's Club, but you can find them at most stores). The flour sack towel is thin and clean, and sans of lint. They are used for everything food related. I do not use kitchen or dish towels--the fuzzy absorbent kind--simply because, well, that's gross! Those are used for cleaning up messes and drying dishes.
** schmaltz (also spelled schmalz or shmalz is rendered (clarified) chicken fat. It is an integral part of traditional Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine. Used for centuries in a wide array of dishes including chicken soup, matzah balls, chopped liver. It has an "umami" or flavor enhancer that is hard to duplicate. I have never found schmaltz in any stores-- and believe me if I did, I would buy it. Maybe that's research for another blog???