Learn to make potato latkes the Larder way
The potato latke is one of the most universally recognizable and beloved traditional Jewish treats. Eaten to celebrate Hanukkah, the latke has a history 2,000 years old, with endless variations in that history.
"Latke is a Hebrew word, you know, Yiddish roots to it. Potato pancake is what we say in English," said Jeremy Umansky, head chef at Larder.
Umansky and his wife Allie, both chefs, opened the Larder Deli and Bakery in 2018, to bring traditional Jewish foods to Cleveland. Latkes are very close to his heart.
"Growing up in a Jewish family in the upper Midwest, latke making was the equivalent of decorating the Christmas tree," said Umansky. "Everybody got together. Your grandma was there. Aunts and uncles, cousins. And you'd make the latkes. You'd cook them off. And you have a great party."
A bit of history
The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah revolves around the miracle of the oil. After an upset victory over the Syrian Greek armies of King Antiochus, the Jewish army of Judah Macabee returned to Jerusalem to light the temple lamp, called the menorah. There was only enough oil to light the lamp for one day, but as the story goes, a miracle occurred and the oil lasted for eight days. Because of that, oil is really the key to the celebration, not potatoes.
"The big thing about Hanukkah is oil and fried foods and cooking, in oil," said Umansky.
In fact, as Umansky notes, for hundreds of years, Ashkenazi Jews of Europe didn't even have potatoes. Oil is essential to one of the other main foods eaten on Hanukkah: sufganiyot, better known to most as donuts.
"We've literally been celebrating Hanukkah for 2000 years, but the potato didn't come to Europe til after the 1500s, and it wasn't widespread eaten in Europe until roughly the 18th century," said Umansky.
Different latke traditions and recipes are like the stars in the sky, or the grains of sand on the beach. There are a lot of them. Step one is choosing your potatoes.
"Latke making is really intense because you got to select your potatoes and choosing the right potatoes is important: russet or Yukon Golds are really good. Redskin potatoes not so good. They don't have the necessary types of starches to fry up and the potatoes to hold together," said Umansky.
The presence of these starches are hugely important to Umansky's recipe particularly, because potatoes are the only ingredient. Lots of people use eggs, flour and onions in their latkes. Umansky eschews all of these for a stripped down recipe.
"We want to feed as many latkes to as many people as possible. So having things like egg and potentially flour, that rules out vegans and vegetarians, gluten-free people. We wanted an inclusive latke," said Umansky.
To be able to eliminate the binding agents like egg and flour, Umansky relies on the power of the starch to bind.
"When we look at the starches in a potato, they're really sticky if they're hydrated a specific way. And we can do this hydration by simply taking our potato, either our russets or Yukon Golds. And no matter what size they are, we put them in a 350 degree oven for roughly 30 minutes," said Umansky.
He simply takes the potatoes out of the oven, lets them cool just enough to hold them, and then shreds them while still hot and straight to the fryer.
That's the whole recipe. Pick the right potato, par-bake it, and then fry it. Umansky says the recipe works great using the traditional olive oil to fry in, for those at home who lack the deep-fryer he has at Larder. Fry the latke patties in shallow oil until you see it browned half way through, then flip them.
For when he's at home, and not needing to feed the masses, Umansky prefers to use the traditional Jewish ingredient schmaltz to fry in.
"So schmaltz is like, as far as I'm concerned, it's the way to go. Rendered poultry fat. You render down the chicken skins or you can sauce it and that is what you fry your latkes in.," said Umansky.
Once the latkes are fried up and crispy, Umansky moves on to topping the latkes.
"If we go back into antiquity, if we go back to not even antiquity, it's a much more recent renaissance, the Inquisition, you know, the, the things that they were putting on latkes then would be like, ricotta. Maybe they drizzle honey on there. Maybe they'd have dried fruit with their various nuts," said Umansky.
In honor of this tradition, Umansky’s latkes don’t just come with the ho-hum side of apple sauce. In one version of his latkes, the potato pancake sits under a mountain of sour cream and caviar, and another features homemade brisket, prosciutto and egg yolk. He even does sundaes with ice cream, in honor of the Midwest tradition of dipping french fries into milkshakes.
Umansky said his own mother uses a more traditional recipe with eggs and onion, but his are, quite literally, not your mother’s potato latkes. For the Umanskys, the latkes are all part of a larger quest for inclusion and togetherness.
"As a Jew, that's been something I've been raised with, is a core moral and ethic," said Umansky, "to include everybody, welcome people into your home."