Latkes reflect many traditions

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Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah -- the Jewish Festival of Lights. The menorah, the nine-branched celebratory candelabrum used only during Hanukkah, is waiting.

Jewish families will light the first candle at sundown. Although Hanukkah is not a formal religious holiday, there will be blessings, prayers, songs, dances, games, spinning dreidels (tops) and gifts. And designated cooks all over the county will be busily frying -- sometimes baking -- latkes of all sorts.

Latkes are crunchy pancakes, most often made of grated potatoes -- or grated potatoes with onions and other root vegetables It is traditional to eat latkes and other fried foods like fried chicken and jelly doughnuts to celebrate Hanukkah.

Last Saturday, Greg Roach, chef and prepared foods manager at Wild Oats Market in Williamstown, demonstrated traditional potato latkes so his customers would know how easy they are to make. He used his own great-grandmother Nellie Wiseman's recipe which includes parsnips and horseradish, "a slight variation," Roach called it.

His great-grandmother brought her recipe to Indiana from England, in the 19th century. She died in the 1920s and Roach's grandmother and mother have passed the recipe down to him.

"When I make them at home I pan fry them in schmaltz [rendered chicken, duck or goose fat]. But when I'm making 400 at a time or catering them, I bake them at 450 degrees in a convection oven. You just have to use enough oil," Roach said.

For restaurateur and chef Michael Ballon of Castle Street Café in Great Barrington, however, latkes should be only potato and onion.

"Holiday meals are more for their creation of old memories rather than innovation," he said. "The essence of holiday menus are traditions which are so old we don't always know where or why they started, but which nonetheless must be honored.

"One could be contemporary or cute and make them out of carrots or celery root, and they would taste good, but they simply wouldn't be in keeping with the spirit of the holidays."

Aura Whitman, chef and owner of Café Reva in Pittsfield who spent many years in Israel as a child, has no qualms about using parsnips and butternut squash in her potato-onion latkes. She uses mild white onions and a lot of them.

"I like to go heavy on the onions ‘cause I like them," she said.

Susan Frisch-Lehrer, coordinator of volunteers at the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, also incorporates vegetables.

"I've been making these vegetable-potato latkes for over 30 years. I never make just what is called ‘plain potato latkes.' I always make the potatoes mixed with vegetables. I like zucchini and carrots and sweet potatoes in addition to the potatoes and the onions and I never measure my ingredients; it's always just what's there.

"We've always done sweet potato," she went on, "'cause Mom's from New Orleans. It adds another layer of flavor."

Her style is different in another way.

"Most of the time mine are thick," she said. "I know some people like to make them thin."

Despite the preferences in ingredients, Hanukkah isn't in the potato, it's in the oil the latkes are fried in.

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Hanukkah commemorates the miracle that allowed one night's holy olive oil to last for eight nights so the Second Temple in Jerusalem could be rededicated after the Jews took it and the city back from the Syrians and Greeks in the second century BC.

While Hanukkah celebrates olive oil, neither Roach, nor Ballon, nor any of the other Berkshire latke makers interviewed fry their latkes in it. But both men and a number of other latke lovers (including me) use schmaltz when they have it.

In fact, Ballon lamented, "One tradition which has fallen by the wayside is the frying of the pancakes in rendered duck or chicken fat, known as schmaltz. Those who make the extra effort to use this will be richly rewarded."

Many cooks are cavalier about which oil they use. The oil is the star, so use your best -- whether olive, peanut or sesame. Many latke cooks give the oil short shrift and try to use flavorless oil. The original oil was probably olive oil and extra virgin at that -- or a flavorful nut oil.

These days, in the age of freezer section latkes and boxes of latke mix, some, like Donna Lefkowitz of Pittsfield, make their latkes half with boxed mix and half with fresh ingredients. Lefkowitz fries her latkes in mild oil until they are brown and crisp and her grandson and his friends love them.

Many people still grate their vegetables by hand on an old four-sided box grater -- including those cooking for large numbers.

"Hand-grated" is frequently seen on restaurant menus offering to find fresh latkes.

Those who do hand grate or don't hand grate make their choice for the same reason: the frequency of grating one's knuckles while grating potatoes.

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"I don't hand grate since I grated a few knuckles," Frisch-Lehrer commented. "I always do them in the Cuisinart."

Ballon quipped, "We do them by hand. My grandmother did not know from Cuisinarts. Our recipe includes a requisite amount of knuckle in every batch of latkes."

Maggie Merelle who owns Rouge Restaurant in West Stockbridge with her husband, chef William Merelle, also grates everything by hand. "There's nothing like a little blood in my latkes," she joked.

She considers her and her husband's combined latke versions of potato and apple or sweet potato and sheep yogurt a tradition.

"It's got a lot of butter in it," she said. "It is simple and straightforward. I don't use onion in my latkes. I pan fry them and then I bake them."

As is evident from the interviews, Berkshire latke traditions are as many as there are latke cooks.

What is called the traditional latke -- sometimes without even egg or flour or matzoh meal or onions -- is also common.

Gail Ullman of Sheffield holds her potato-onion latkes together only with eggs.

"I don't use any flour or matzoh meal. The eggs hold it together," she said. "I fry it in canola or a bland oil like corn oil at a high heat about three minutes on each side and not too many in the pan at the same time. They are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside."

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Cindy Bell-Deane of Pittsfield, who cooks the older adult kosher lunches for the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, has been making a recipe that calls for draining her grated potatoes, but adding the starch back in, separating her eggs and folding in the stiffly beaten whites for a light latke.

Rachel Portnoy's husband Franck Tessler is from Western France and makes a Swiss-style rösti potato at their Chez Nous restaurant in Lee. It is a simple, thick potato-onion cake first pan-fried then baked.

"It's a winner," Portnoy said. "Sometimes you get a latke and it's just the crunch. I don't like the crunch so much," she said.

Retired opera singer Arlene Adler of Becket said she does not make latkes, but, she said, "I eat them and I prefer them with a little onion in them; it makes them taste better."

The potato latke recipe that Cecily Levine of Pittsfield uses is Batty Braun's recipe, published in an old Berkshire Hadassah, cookbook. It calls for a proportion of two onions to five potatoes. Levine has made it for many years and said it is good. Braun is now 91.

Most cooks use just a little onion, like Ballon, Martin Lewis of Martin's Restaurant and Judy Lieberman, whose thin, round 3-inch latkes latkes have, since last week, been flying out the door of The Great Barrington Bagel Company, which she and her husband Marvin own.

She drains the liquid from her potatoes, pours it into a bowl, lets it sit so the starch settles then pours the liquid off and adds the starch back into the batter, as do many other latke mavens. Draining the potato and onion liquid from the vegetables before mixing the batter and frying keeps the latkes from absorbing too much oil. Drained latke batter makes crisper latkes.

"Ours are very thin and crisp," Judy Lieberman said.

Diana Blumenthal of Sheffield, mother of Lester Blumenthal who owns the Route 7 Grill in Great Barrington, adds only half an onion to four potatoes but, then, she slices in an entire bunch of scallions.

Cheese latkes are probably an earlier tradition than potato since potatoes were brought to Europe from America and were not popular until the mid-19th century when Jews started to raise them.

Dawn LaRochelle makes cheese latkes, although not at her Perigee restaurant in South Lee.

"While traditional potato pancakes reign supreme in my family," LaRochelle said, "I taught how to make farmer's cheese latkes at a Chanukah cooking class last year, during which I discussed the little-known story of Judith and the corresponding tradition of eating dairy on Hanukkah. "

The Book of Judith tells the story of the brave Jewish widow who plied the invading Assyrian general, Holofernes, with salty cheese cakes, got him drunk, beheaded him and scared off his army. Thus the excuse for eating sour cream and cheese latkes at Hanukkah

Theoretically, latkes can be made ahead and frozen individually on a cookie sheet then tossed into a plastic bag to keep and reheat at any time. I find reheated crisp potatoes usually have the texture of shirt cardboard or worse.

"You make them and you eat them. They have a very small window," said Adam Zieminski, who makes his wife, Sylvia's Polish potato pancakes called blimy, at his Café Adam in Great Barrington.

"They serve them with applesauce in Poland," Zieminski said. "Or liquid heavy cream, fresh from the cow. We serve this at home. It is comforting and a reminder of home for Sylvia."


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