Latkes Worth Stinking Up the House for

Is there any more wanton, more decadent, more soul-satisfying experience than biting into a potato pancake moments from the pan, still so hot it burns your fingers? The crisp exterior, starchy shards snapping, gives way to a sumptuously soft interior, fragrant with onions and a deep, earthy richness. You devour it greedily, shocked at your lust, then lick the glistening oil from your fingertips…

If it’s not clear from the purple prose above, I think latkes are practically a sexual experience. So why do I only allow myself to cook them once each year, during Hanukkah? Well, first of all, S might get jealous. Then there’s the perpetual-diet factor. (Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of my return to Weight Watchers. So far, it hasn’t exactly worked out—I stopped attending meetings over the summer—though I still moan about it regularly. Hey, at least I haven’t gained.) But perhaps the biggest reason is olfactory: Once you start frying up potatoes and onions, your home smells for days. Some sort of alchemical reaction happens when the batter hits the pan, which creates an industrial-strength bouquet that persists long after you’ve Fantastiked every kitchen surface. After cooking this year’s batch, I took a shower and washed my hair so the smell wouldn’t torment me in my sleep, but even that did no good—I drifted into slumber with onions dancing in my brain, and before I was fully conscious the next morning, I was already thinking latkes. It’s two days later, and when you walk in our front door, the lingering aroma immediately triggers a desire for greasy, salty, potatoey release.

But here’s the thing: It’s worth it. These puppies are that good. The recipe I use, from Faye Levy’s International Jewish Cookbook, is quite pure—aside from the potatoes and onions, there’s only an egg, a dusting of flour, a pinch of baking powder, and seasoning. No matzoh meal, no New World tweaks, just abundant shredded* spuds. Add a little applesauce (or if you insist—shudder—sour cream), and you won’t need sex for at least a week.

Potato Latkes
From Faye Levy’s International Jewish Cookbook
Makes about 15 pancakes

4 large potatoes (about 1 ¼ lbs), peeled
1 medium onion (about ½ lb)
1 large egg [I used 2 egg whites]
1 t. salt
¼ t. white pepper
2 T. all-purpose flour
½ t. baking powder
Vegetable oil, for frying [the recipe calls for about ½ cup, but I find that it always takes much more—I suspect because my frying technique ain’t what it should be since I do it so rarely]
Applesauce or sour cream

Shred potatoes and onion, using shredder disc of a food processor or large holes of a grater. Transfer to a colander; squeeze mixture to press out as much liquid as possible [really squeeze hard here—you want this to be as dry as possible so the potatoes will crisp up as soon as they hit the hot oil]. In a large bowl mix potatoes, egg, salt, pepper, flour, and baking powder.

Turn on oven to lowest setting—warm or 200 degrees. Line cookie sheets with two layers of paper towels and set aside.

Heat oil in a deep, heavy 10- to 12-inch skillet. For each pancake, drop about 2 T. of mixture into pan. Flatten with back of a spoon so each cake is about 2 ½ to 3 inches in diameter. Fry over medium heat about 4 to 5 minutes on each side, or until golden brown and crisp. Turn carefully with 2 pancake turners so oil doesn’t splatter. Cook until crisp on other side, then drain well on prepared cookie sheets and put into the oven to keep warm. Stir potato mixture before frying each new batch. If all the oil is absorbed, add a little more to pan.

Serve hot, accompanied by applesauce (yum) or sour cream (yuk).

NOTE: These reheat well. If you’ve got leftovers (and we did, since there were only two of us), put them in a paper-towel-lined, air-tight container in the fridge. Reheat in a single layer on cookie sheets in a 450 oven—or if you’re just heating a couple, do what I do and pop them on a tray in the toaster oven on 300 for about 5 minutes. Perfect!

* Shredding is my one real tweak to the recipe—Faye calls for grating the potatoes, but I don’t care for that texture. This is a perpetual source of discussion in my family: Some prefer the mushier, more hunka-hunka pancakes that come from grated spuds, while others (like me) like the more delicate, more elegant, more pure result of shredding.