Every December, during the week of Hanukkah, newspapers publish innovative latke recipes involving such creative ingredients as beets, zucchini and leeks, and I look at them longingly. In my house, however, there is only one latke recipe — the one my wife Anne’s family has relied upon for years. And since Anne is actually Jewish while I (as my father-in-law likes to say) practice Judaism as a hobby, her opinion on latkes trumps whatever aspirational, gourmet notions I may have about potato pancakes.
When it comes to latkes, my wife is a traditionalist — although how seriously I can use that term in this context is debatable. Like the great matzoh ball debate (floaters v. sinkers), Talmudic scholars have, I’m sure, argued for centuries about proper latke preparation (to drain or not to drain the potatoes?), texture (thin and crispy or thick and crunchy) and seasoning (salt, pepper, egg, onion). This recipe produces lacy potato pancakes that are crispy around the circumference and soft and creamy in the center. They taste entirely of potato and are absolutely delicious. Serve with applesauce or sour cream, or, if you are a glutton like my friend Liz, both.
This recipe is pretty minimalist, but after about a decade of examining it, I think there are two techniques necessary to ensure success. First, before frying each batch, stir the batter well (up from the bottom) — this guarantees an even distribution of solids (bits of potato and onion) with binders (egg, flour and starchy potato juice). If you don’t do this, all the liquid will collect in the bottom of the bowl and your first batches will be too dry, your final batches too wet.
Second, I really believe that cast iron fry pans work best with this recipe; they maintain even heat which helps avoid the problem of burnt exteriors and raw interiors in the quest for crispy potato perfection.
1 ¼ lb russet potatoes, peeled and shredded
1 medium onion, shredded
2 tablespoons flour
1 ½ teaspoons Kosher salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ cup (at least) canola or vegetable oil
Combine shredded potatoes and onion (can be shredded either on the large holes of a box grater or with a food processor) in a bowl. Toss potatoes and onions with the flour. Make a well in the potato-onion mixture; crack eggs into well and beat with a fork. Add salt and pepper. Stir the entire mixture to combine.
Heat a large cast iron skillet with ¼ cup oil over medium heat until the oil shimmers. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Using the method described above, drop 2 tablespoons batter into pan for each pancake. Flatten pancakes with the back of a dinner fork. Fry until golden, flip, and continue to fry until golden on both sides. Remove to a paper-towel lined plate or tray to drain. Repeat until you’ve used all the batter. Serve hot.
Makes about 15 latkes; serves three.
Make-ahead note: You can easily double (or even triple) this recipe, and you can fry the latkes ahead of time. After they’ve drained, lay the cooked latkes on a foil-lined baking sheet. Re-heat latkes in 400º oven for 10 – 12 minutes, until hot and bubbly.