EIGHT days of intensive testing have yielded this authoritative latke story and recipe. Potato pancakes and hash browns are eaten all over the world. Going by the name Erdäpfelpuffer, they are also a popular winter dish in Vienna, of all places. As Yiddish latkes, one of the most famous of Jewish foods, they’re charged with religious meaning for the holiday of Hanukkah. That’s when, in just eight days, Jews eat the same quantity of oily potato pancakes that the world eats during one whole year. Fried in oil, latkes commemorate the Hanukkah miracle in which one day’s worth of oil illuminated the temple for eight days. In the rabbinic literature, there are extensive hallachic (Jewish law) discussions about latkes. Gil Mark’s Encyclopedia of Jewish Food traces latkes – or levivot (nלביבות) in Hebrew, meaning a little patty fried in oil – to the Ukrainian oladka, then ironically to the Greek eladia, or “little oilies” from the Greek word for olive oil, elaionor.
Despite this theory of etymology, it is doubtful that Eastern Europeans fried their latkes in expensive oil a century ago. They were more likely using their very flavorful schmaltz, which is rendered chicken or goose fat, or clarified butter. After all, fois gras and rendered goose fat were a staple of Hungarian Jews, where raising, fattening and selling of geese was a Jewish trade. Hence Michael Silverstein, professor of anthropology, linguistics and psychology, argued that it is not mere coincidence that the English translation of the letters on the dreidl, a game played only during Hanukkah, spells out T-U-M-S, the antacid that provides relief from indigestion!
Some provocateurs even insist that Hanukkah is the celebration of a gruesome victory of zealots and religious extremists over an enlightened world. So only to make these bloody stories suitable for children, “the rabbis tacked on the miracle of the oil to a violent story of extremist insurrection,” writes Dan Friedman in The Jewish Daily Forward, in a piece called “Why I Detest Hanukkah, and Why All Right Minded Jews Should Too.”2 Indeed, the book of Judith is not historical. It should be seen as a parable or maybe as one of the first historical fiction novels. The Hebrew Bible does not contain it, nor was it found among the Dead Sea Scrolls or referred in any early Rabbinic literature. Nonetheless, it became customary for this Midrashic variant of the Judith story to be read on the Shabbos of Hanukkah.
Let’s take a dreidel and give this rabbinical conspiracy a spin for its money – ahem, its Hanukkah-gelt. It seems like even the main ingredient, the potato in your latke, might be part of that cover-up. Indeed, supposedly latkes are eaten during Hanukkah because they are fried in oil, thus remind us of the miracle. But there’s an alternative reason for eating latkes: Judith cut off the head of Holofernes. Yes, she could behead the enemy because she served him very salty cheese latkes that made him thirsty, which is why he drank lots of wine and fell asleep forever.3
Judith’s story is the counterpart to Queen Esther’s, the heroine of the holiday of Purim. The hamantash is to Purim what the latke is to Hanukkah. Latkes commemorate Judith’s cheese latkes. This is why Italian Jews have served ricotta latkes for centuries.4 Joan Nathan even included a Hungarian cheese latke recipe in her Jewish Cooking in America. The Viennese frequently add sour cream to their potato pancake mix, too.
In fact, it’s only around the mid-19th century that the poor Jews of Eastern Europe switched to potatoes in their latkes, because they couldn’t afford soft cheese. They did so despite potatoes not being at all well-regarded at that time. Milk, soft cheese and butter were scarce around Hanukkah, in winter time. These stories of survival and hardship attached themselves to the latkes too. The narrative of the fight against poverty, oppression and famine in Eastern Europe is also the story of the General Jewish Labour Bund in Lithuania, Poland and Russia. Emigrants eventually took this radical Jewish culture with them to the Americas and elsewhere. It’s the story of a greasy, starchy potato latke that speaks Yiddish. Here’s what happens next.
First, in the introduction to a latke recipe in The Foods of Israel Today, venerated American food priestess Joan Nathan notes, “The story of Judah Maccabee and his brothers overpowering the fierce Syrian army so appealed to the nationalism of the early Zionists that they turned Hanukkah, traditionally a minor religious holiday, into a patriotic festival.” All the more after the annihilation of European Jewry, this idea of Jews fighting back was reassuring and healing for many. Moving accounts abound of lighting a hanukkiah during and after World War II despite and against all odds.
Meanwhile, Modern Hebrew had replaced the old smelly Yiddish name, latkes, with an antic and holy Hebrew one: levivot, which refers to any little patty fried in oil. Zucchini pancakes, like those in Italy, are very popular. Einat Admony’s sunchoke latkes (or Jerusalem artichoke levivot) are my favorite. In contemporary Israel, only the old immigrants from Eastern Europe and new immigrants from the United States and the former Soviet Union still call these pancakes latkes.
Then in the 1920s, the largest Israeli labor federation, the Histadrut, was looking for an item to sell for Hanukkah that would give the largest number of their members work, including the bakers.5 Latkes are too quick and easy to make at home, too cheap and maybe way too Ashkenazy? So they came up with jam-filled doughnuts, which though also imported from their European homes, had several advantages over latkes. While they could also be associated with Hanukkah through the oil in which they are fried, they would symbolize a new choice. A step away from the Old World burned and fatty latke to a new symbolic food horizon of a new country and a new spirit. The success sure was tremendous. Today in Israel, jelly donuts are Hanukkah. The Academy of Hebrew Language even incorporated a new Israeli word into their lexicon, the sufganiyah. (See my recipe for jelly donuts with Uri Scheft!)
As such famous institutions as the Ponevezh yeshivah (ישיבת פוניבז׳), after centuries of studies in Yiddish, switched over to modern-day Hebrew, these substitutions reached deep into the Jewish identity. Even the wording of popular Yiddish folk songs like Chanukah, Oy Chanukah (חנוכה, אוי חנוכה)6 changed latkes to levivot, and finally to sufganiyot.7 These changes were the continuous works of the Zionist fighting spirit. As for this new Jewish identity, Theodor Herzl himself didn’t circumcise his son Hans, hence no anti-Semitic Hellenistic Greek like Antiochus, of sinister memory from the Hanukkah story, could hurt his Jewishness by outlawing circumcision. This is the latke’s Zionist metamorphosis so far.
Together with Theodor Herzl, buried in Vienna and moved to Israel in 1948, Zionism is Viennese too. This is part of How Vienna produced ideas that shaped the West and thus the Middle East, with intellectuals like Sigmund Freud in its midst. Thomas Mann reminds us in Brother Hitler that the city always was Hitler’s focal point of rage because of his archenemy, Sigmund Freud, living there. Vienna was a major stopping point for immigration to Palestine, a capital of arts and science as well as the birthplace of modern anti-Semitism, the Nazi dictator’s place of apprenticeship. And Vienna still is, if we believe the late Thomas Bernhard, the heart of visceral post-WWII anti-Semitism.
In this Vienna, the poor immigrants from the collapsing Austro-Hungarian empire of the 20th century were eating latkes while getting to know the Habsburg capital’s ways of eating. The better-off and well situated Viennese Jews ate latkes under the assimilated name Erdäpfelpuffer, or the French name pommes Darphin.8 They started to replace schmaltz with oil, reducing overall fat. Erdäpfelpuffer became a side dish to more refined foods like the beloved emperor Franz Joseph’s favorite, Tafelspitz, the classic Viennese boiled beef. But the dish was Sigmund Freud’s favorite too. This Freudian dish is an assimilated Jew’s disguised Yom Tov (Jewish holiday) brisket with potato kugel (a thicker, casserole-style latke). Take it from New York’s 2nd Ave Deli’s Cookbook: “Potato latkes are really just potato kugel in pancake form.”
But what’s left of the latke in contemporary Vienna? Today, except in a place or two in Vienna’s second district (see my post), there’s no latke left in Austria’s capital, only Erdäpfelpuffer (often Germanized to Kartoffelpuffer). In winter, they featue on the menu of street vendors, called Maronibrater, and classy restaurants alike. The latter often call the pancakes by their more west-Austrian and Swiss rural name, Rösti, and traditionally top them with local crayfish or finest Beluga caviar.9 Obviously the Viennese know how to serve potato pancakes. But clearly most Viennese are unaware that these crispy hash browns are really one of the most famous Jewish comfort foods.
Not so for Kurt Gutenbrunner, in his New York restaurants and in his beautiful cookbook Neue Cuisine: The Elegant Tastes of Vienna. The Austrian chef ingenuously plays with the local latke and the Austrian Erdäpfelpuffer tradition. One known trick is to parboil the potatoes for lean, even, quick and hassle-free cooking. This gets rid of the starchy flavor and sometimes oddly raw potato texture too. Following Viennese tradition, he serves them with lobster and steak, not forgetting to note that they are a classic accompaniment of the Tafelspitz boiled beef. But whether par-cooked or not, it is an egg-less and flour-less potato pancake, like the one featured in one of classic Viennese reference cookbook Das Franz Ruhm Kochbuch.
And how does the Jewish Diaspora in the US treat the old latke heritage? Knowingly or not, not unlike Viennese cuisine! That comes as no surprise, as quite a few of their ancestors came from the vast regions of the Austro-Hungarian empire and its capital, where they had picked up local urban foodways. Lox and smoked salmon, schmaltz herring and matjes herring top updated versions of this Jewish patrimony. Such latkes feature on the cover of countless cookbooks and magazines, especially around Hanukkah. Chef Michael Solomonov, winner of the James Beard Award, in his book Zahav – A World of Israeli Cooking (named after his famed Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia) treats the latke in a similar way, starting with an elegant, flavor-concentrated minimalist flour-less and egg-less base of raw potato. And for a low and slow cooking process, he starts with a good amount of cold oil in a cold skillet.
Now, it’s about time get to our perfect potato latke recipe:
RECIPE: Potato Latkes (Erdäpfelpuffer)
Actually, all versions of potato pancakes are quite similar and dead easy to make. For the best and most simple basic ones you really only need a potato, a pan and maybe some rendered goose fat to make them. Nonetheless, here’s what my very thorough and extensive tests have revealed over the course of eight days:
Parboiled vs. Raw Potatoes
Some people, like me, parboil the potatoes before grating. Others don’t bother. Par-cooking gets rid of the starchy flavor and the raw texture of the potato. It brings out the potato’s flavors. However, if boiled for too long, it’ll taste like it’s made with leftover mashed potatoes, which is definitely not what we are looking for. Well executed, the parboiled version will trump any other latke. No need to squeeze and drain out the starchy liquid of raw potatoes. No risk of browning because of oxidation either. You can even parboil the potatoes a day ahead. In fact, it’s the prefered way, but don’t keep them in the refrigerator.
Waxy vs. Starchy Potatoes
There’s no definite answer that I could gather from the sources. Potatoes are the main flavor of this dish, so choose them for their taste. Making potato latkes with raw starchy potatoes will very likely give them a starchy taste. If you choose to parboil the potatoes, the waxy ones will have an edge, as they do keep their shape and won’t taste like mashed potatoes.
Peeling Potatoes or not?
There is really no need to peel the potatoes. It entirely depends on your preferences. Leaving the skin on adds a nice rustic flavor and look, as the bits of skin get quite crispy too.
Additions: Eggs, Flour, Onion, Garlic, Nutmeg, Sour Cream…
I’m in the camp of those who prefer a contemporary egg-less and flour-less approach, but for kugel, I must have onion. For spices, I like black pepper, a pinch of nutmeg and a tiny hint of garlic.10 Some add a speck of white pepper too.11 In Vienna, it’s quite common to add a bit of sour cream to the potato mix.
For the sweet version,12 it is nice to add grated apples. Other popular additions are scallions as well as root vegetables, but even kimchi is surprisingly good.13
Schmaltz from Chicken or Goose or Clarified Butter vs. Oil
Schmaltz, especially from geese, but also butter, give potatoes that glorious taste and wonderful crust. Rendered chicken or goose fat really works wonders on latkes, making them crunchier than anything else. Even if you use a non-stick pan, get the right fat for taste and crunch. There’s no browning without fat.
Cold Oil vs. Hot Oil
Particularly when using raw potatoes, like chef Solomonov in Zahav – A World Of Israeli Cooking, cold oil in a cold skillet will give the potatoes more time to slowly cook through before they start to crunch up. With parboiled potatoes, just get the pan hot and fry away till you like the color of the crust. They’ll be cooked through for sure by the time they browned.
The Right Amount of Oil
From deep-frying and shallow-frying to almost fat-free with only a film of oil, everything is being advocated, so do what suits your style and needs. To get a wonderfully tasty crust and impart the flavor of the fat to the dish, you will obviously have to be generous.
Non-stick skillet vs. Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel
Any skillet will do, if you know what to do. Cast iron and non-stick are a no-brainer, though you will still have to add fat to the latter if you want to get nice browning and a decent crust!
Big vs. Small
I’ve seen this style of skillet-sized kugel-latkes often in ultra-orthodox neighborhoods, though the casserole-style is definitely more common. Michael Solomonov’s Zahav – A World Of Israeli Cooking also presents his latke this way. I prefer individual portions, because this will give more surface area for crust to form all around the patties. You can form them free-style, by flattening a spoonful of mixture right inside the pan, or before sliding it in the oil (like this grandpa). Or you can get fancy like me and use a dessert cake ring that you fill inside the pan.
Serves 4 – 6
basic contemporary latkes (hash browns, Erdäpfelpuffer, Röstis or Pommes Darphin)
- 2 pounds (1 kg) waxy potatoes
- 1 teaspoon (6g) fine iodine-free table salt (iodine gives a bitter taste)
- and 1 teaspoon (6g) salt per quart (liter) of boiling water
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
- pinch nutmeg, freshly grated (optional)
- medium onion (0.5 pounds/8 ounces/225g), finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, crushed or minced (optional)
- schmaltz, clarified butter or oil for pan-frying (rendered goose fat is best)
- Parboil potatoes. Preferably a day ahead, scrub the potatoes thoroughly. Bring enough water to a boil in a pot to cover the potatoes by an inch (2,5 cm). Add 1 teaspoon (6g) of salt per quart (liter) of water. Put the potatoes in the water and par-cook them for approx. 10 minutes or until they start to be cooked on the outside, but are still almost raw inside. Drain the potatoes and immediately plunge them into ice water. Let them cool. (Don’t refrigerate if you do this ahead of time.)
- Grate potatoes. Peel if you prefer and grate small quantities by hand for best texture. (Use a food processor for large batches.) Discard any skin that detaches itself from the flesh. Handle delicately while mixing in salt, pepper, nutmeg, onion and garlic. (Cover and refrigerate if you do this ahead of time).
- Heat a large skillet. Preferably non-stick or cast-iron, over medium heat.
- Add schmaltz (or oil). Put a couple of tablespoons into the pan to generously cover its bottom and heat it until it begins to shimmer but doesn’t smoke.
- Fry. Either form a large skillet-filling pancake, kugel-style, or spoon individual patties into the skillet. Flatten them by pressing down with a spatula. Set the heat to medium-high and continue to fry, until the bottom is nicely browned and crisp.
- Turn the latke delicately. Flip a large pancake by sliding it onto a plate. Cover the plate with a second plate. Invert and slip the pancake back into the pan.
- Brown the second side until crispy. Place on rack or paper towels.
To make ahead:
Put in a 250°F (129°C) oven while frying the rest of the batch for up to one hour. If you plan on reheating them at a later moment, you can slightly under-cook them, so that they will get their golden brown look on a rack in a 300°F (150°C) oven. They keep in fridge for a couple of days, but also freeze well for about two weeks.
- Patties (or wedges of a large pancake) are accompanied by apple-sauce or a dollop of sour cream (or even crème fraîche). Sprinkle with chives. You may want to add some Matjes or schmaltz herring, lox, smoked salmon or gravlax.
- Viennese often serve them with a simple leafy green salad along with any sauce the cook likes that day.
- A large and thick pancake, or potato kugel is served as a side dish for cholent (Yiddish: טשאָלנט, tsholnt or tshoolnt), a Jewish cassoulet or bean-goulash, or with Vienna’s famous Tafelspitz (boiled beef).
- Felicity Cloake “How To Cook the Perfect Rösti” (The Guardian)
LET’S STAY IN TOUCH
If you’d like to hear from me now and then, sign up below.
Share if you care!
- During the 5th debate, Jonathan Flombaum and Hollis Robbins, drawing upon Spinoza and Jacques Derrida to emphasize the latke’s différance, argued on semiotic and philosophical grounds that the latke’s joyous heterogeneity made it the better holiday food
- On the other hand, Samuel G. Freedman writes “Why We Need Hanukkah’s Message of Righteous Rebellion in the Age of Trump.” That sets the scene for some nice family discussions around the hanukkiah, doesn’t it?
- By far my favorite rendition is Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1530 (Jagdschloss Grunewald, Berlin). I mention it only in the footnotes because, as the title indicates it emphasizes the taking possession of the had not the cutting off, the gory part. The twist here is her gaze. Can you guess where she is looking at? A tip: Don’t forget that the owner of this picture was a male, a person of power…
- See the entry on latke in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks.
- See the entry on sufganiyah in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks.
חנוכה, אוי חנוכה
חנוכה, אוי חנוכה, אַ יום-טוב אַ שיינער,
אַ לוסטיקער, אַ פריילעכער, ניטאָ נאָך אַזוינער.
אַלע נאַכט אין דריידלעך שפילן מיר,
זודיק הייסע לאַטקעס עסן מיר.
געשווינדער, צינדט קינדער
די דינינקע ליכטעלעך אָן.
זאָגט על הנסים, לויבט גאָט פאַר די נסים,
און קומט גיכער טאַנצן אין קאָן.
יהודה האָט פאַרטריבן דעם שונא, דעם רוצח,
און האָט אין בית המקדש געזונגען למנצח.
די שטאָט ירושלים האָט ווידער אויפגעלעבט,
און צו אַ נייעם לעבן האָט יעדערער געשטרעבט.
געשווינדער, צינדט קינדער
די דינינקע ליכטעלעך אָן.
זאָגט על הנסים, לויבט גאָט פאַר די נסים,
און קומט גיכער טאַנצן אין קאָן.
אַלע נאַכט אין דריידלעך שפילן מיר
זודיק הייסע לאַטקעס עסן מיר
בכל לילה נשחק בסביבון
ולביבות רותחות נאכל לתיאבון
and finally sufganiyot
לילה ויום סביבוננו ייסוב
סופגניות נאכל גם לרוב
Please see the wonderful
שמאלץ – המטבח היהודי – אירופאי מתכונים, מסורות וסיפורי סבתא
by שמיל הולנד Toad Publishing and Modan Publishing House Ltd, Meshek 33, Moshav Ben-Shemen, 73115, Israel.
- Joan Nathan recently wrote that “According to the culinary historian Philip Hyman, pommes Darphin, also called potato straws or straw potatoes, first appeared around 1900 in the French resort town of Aix-les-Bains, the creation of a maître d’hôtel named François Darphin.” in “A French Latke, as Big as the Pan“ (New York Times December 20, 2016) (update January 25, 2017).
- Once again I’ll cite the cookbook of Viennese Café Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie New York as a contemporary example. Though a look into the classic Das große Sacher Kochbuch by Franz Maier Bruck (ISBN-13: 978-3779650706) reveals a similar picture.
- For example, in The Veselka Cookbook of New York’s East Village landmark Ukrainian restaurant, one finds a potato pancake recipe that lists garlic as an ingredient. A Viennese example might be Die Gute Küche by Ewald Plachutta and Christoph Wagner.
- Evelyn Rose, The New Complete International Jewish Cookbook.
- In The Foods of Israel Today, Joan Nathan presents a Polish Apple-Potato Latkes recipe that was handed down to the wife of the Israeli ambassador to the United States by her mother, who was born in Poland.
- I like the Mark Bittman kimchi latkes in his How to Cook Everything.