Embarrassing as it is for a Jewish cookbook author to admit, I didn’t grow up eating homemade latkes. My parents-- both Hungarian Jewish Holocaust survivors-- were both great cooks, but my mother-- a working woman-- served frozen latkes. In the 1960’s when I was growing up, the only way to make latkes was to grate your potatoes by hand-- hard, tedious and potentially dangerous work, as the grater would inevitably scrape his or her knuckles into a bloody, painful mess.
In our home, the highlight of the eight-day holiday was the family game of dreydl, the ancient spinning top which commemorates the Maccabees’ victory over the Syrian Greeks. The four Hebrew or Yiddish letters imprinted on the top are acronyms for the phrase in Hebrew “a great miracle happened there.” The Hassidic masters say that dreydl-- a game of chance-- symbolizes man's dependence on G-d.
On one or more of the holiday’s eight nights, my father, mother, brother and I gathered around our Formica kitchen table, left uncovered so that the holiday top could spin. We used a heavy plastic dreydl purchased from a Judaica store, but in their native Hungary, my father and his brothers fashioned their own dreydl, pouring melted lead into a homemade mold built from cut off broomsticks. But even in the new country, my family played for real, meaning we played for money. My father brought out a huge collection of coins he'd saved for our game. Jewish tradition generally frowns upon gambling but the dreydl game is an exception.
I can still remember holding the dreydl in the palms of my hands, and blowing on it as if I were a Las Vegas dice roller and hoping for the best. What a thrill it was to watch the top spin, its letters turning into a blur and wondering where it would land. Gimel meant that I'd take the whole pot, all the coins that the players had deposited into the center of the table. A hey was good too; half the pot, but nun and shin were bad news.
Potato latkes were invented in 19th century Poland, where potatoes were the dietary staple. But we don't eat latkes for the potatoes. On Hanukkah it's all about the oil.
Nun meant nisht, meaning that I got nothing and shin, or shtell tzu was a penalty. It meant that I'd need to relinquish two coins to the pot. I can't remember winning or losing-- I probably did a bit of both-- but to me those dreydl evenings spinning together were magical.
When my kids grew old enough to play I purchased a dreydl and collected coins hoping to relive my childhood joy, but that was not to be. After a few short rounds, my kids walked out. They were bored. They grew up with Game Boys and Super Mario so the repeated spinning of a top failed to hold their interest, even with its potential for monetary reward.
So I needed another way to bring the holiday home.
That’s when I started to make homemade potato latkes. Interestingly, the Maccabees never ate potato latkes. Potatoes didn’t exist in Ancient Israel or even in Ancient Greece. Potato latkes were invented in 19th century Poland, where potatoes were the dietary staple. But we don't eat latkes for the potatoes. On Hanukkah it's all about the oil. These deep fried fritters-- and other fried foods-- remind us of the single cruse of pure oil which the Maccabees found when they reentered the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. All the other oil had been contaminated by the Syrian Greek occupiers who had defiled the temple. With that single cruse the Maccabees lit the menorah. Miraculously that small amount of oil burned for eight days, long enough for a fresh supply to be produced.
With a food processor, latkes are quick work but there are a few things to know to get them right... Start frying when your oil is hot--not too hot or you'll start a fire (you can test this by skewing a cube of bread and seeing if it fries) and don't crowd too many in the pan. Drain on paper towels and enjoy.
1 small onion
4 large potatoes
½ cups matzoh meal
⅛ Teaspoon pepper
1 Teaspoon salt
Oil for frying
Grate together onion, potatoes, eggs and matzo meal. Add black pepper and salt.
Heat oil in heavy bottomed skillet. Make sure entire skillet is covered with oil ¼ inch or more deep. Drop in a tiny bit of batter. If it browns you’re ready to fry. Spoon in latkes. Don’t crowd.
Fry three minutes on each side. Remove, place on paper towel to drain excess oil and serve immediately.You can reheat in a low oven and serve later, but nothing tastes as good as fresh!
(Safety note: turn frying pan handles inward and never leave a frying pan full of hot oil alone, even for a minute. Also, don’t let oil smoke because that will spoil your latkes.)
Carol Ungar is a Jerusalem-based journalist and writing teacher with a special interest in Jewish food and its history and meaning. She's the author of "Jewish Soul Food: Traditional Fare and What It Means," (Brandeis.) She's also a mom, grandmother and avid home cook.