When the air outside begins to nip and the neighborhood is all adorned in twinkle lights and strands of garland, my childhood home fills with the smell of oil and crisping potatoes as my mother, Emily Angel Baer, transforms into the Latke Lady. I come from a very big family in Memphis; we spend the eight days of Hanukkah celebrating with different groups of people each night. While these get-togethers take place in the homes of various cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends, the one constant is my mom’s potato latkes. She brings them to every gathering because no one makes them better.
Tradition is important in the Jewish faith. Many of the ways we celebrate holidays aren’t mandated in the Torah; they are rituals passed down through generations, like making latkes. We eat them on Hanukkah as a nod to the oil that should have lit the temple for only one day but instead lasted eight miraculous nights.
My family’s latkes can be traced back decades to Russia. My great-grandmother, Tamara Tiba Malkin, made them with a version of the recipe shown below, and when my mother was a child, Tamara Tiba turned the responsibility over to her eldest daughters. My great-aunt Mary, whom I remember fondly as a real spitfire, passed the recipe on to my mother, who then shared it with me.
By conservative estimates, Mom cranks out around 250 of the delicious fried delights every holiday season—in advance. But she has the perfect trick for making them taste like they were just pulled out of a hot pan.
When I asked Mom why hers are the best, I was hoping for some cooking tips or insight, but she answered in her typical witty fashion: “I don’t put anything healthy in them. There are people who like to use sweet potatoes or add some kind of strange vegetable into the mix to make them more nutritious, but I say, ‘Rubbish to that.’ ” The Latke Lady knows best.
Introduction by Rebecca Angel Baer .
5 large russet potatoes, scrubbed
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 tsp. kosher salt
1 1/4 tsp. baking powder
1 large yellow onion , cut into 1-inch pieces (2 cups)
2 large eggs
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice (from 1 lemon)
Canola oil , for frying
Fill a large bowl with ice water. Peel potatoes, and cut into 1-inch pieces; as you work, place potatoes in the bowl of ice water. Drain, and blot dry using paper towels. Set aside.
Stir together flour, salt, and baking powder in a small bowl. Place half of the potatoes, half of the onion pieces, 1 egg, and half of the flour mixture in a food processor. Process until mixture forms a thick, smooth batter with no chunks remaining, about 30 seconds. Add 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice; process until combined to keep the batter from oxidizing and turning gray. Transfer batter to a large bowl, and place near stovetop. Repeat process with remaining potatoes, onion, egg, flour mixture, and 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Set aside.
Fill a large skillet with canola oil to a depth of about 1/3 inch (about 1 1/2 cups), and heat over medium-high until oil reaches about 325°F. To test the oil: Scoop 2 to 3 tablespoons of the batter onto a spoon; carefully lower the batter into the hot oil, slowly lifting the spoon away to slide the batter into the oil. (The oil is hot enough if the batter quickly sizzles.) Cook latke until golden brown around the edges, about 4 minutes. Using 2 spoons or a fish spatula, flip and cook until other side is golden brown, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined baking sheet.
Working in batches of six, being careful not to overcrowd the skillet, repeat process until all the latke batter is used, stirring the batter in between batches and reducing the heat as needed. (If the oil is too hot, the latkes will fall apart.) If needed, add more oil to maintain depth of 1/3 inch. To serve hot, place cooked latkes on a single layer on a baking sheet, and transfer to a 225°F oven to keep warm until ready to eat.
Make-Ahead Tips From a Latke Pro
Remove cooked latkes from hot oil; transfer to a 3-layer drying surface: newspaper topped with brown paper bags covered with paper towels. Allow excess oil to drain off. Let latkes cool completely, about 15 minutes.
Arrange cooled latkes in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Freeze, uncovered, until firm, about 15 minutes.
Remove baking sheet from freezer. Transfer latkes to a gallon-size ziplock plastic freezer bag; keep them from sticking together by placing parchment paper between layers, with 2 to 3 layers total. Seal bag. Write the number of latkes on the outside, and gently place in freezer. Freeze up to 3 months.
Preheat oven as hot as possible, 450°F to 500°F. Place frozen latkes in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake until hot, 5 to 10 minutes; keep an eye on them, as they can burn quickly. Serve immediately.