By the time Hanukkah rolled around last year, I was all fried out. But when asked to teach a Hanukkah cooking class this year, I just couldn’t say no to latkes.
My friend Frances offered up her large kitchen, so last night I rolled a suitcase filled with ingredients and utensils and lots of oil into her apartment. While Frances’ daughters finished homework and practiced violin, I got organized. Within minutes, my stand mixer took its place on one end of the black granite counter separating the kitchen from dining room On the other end, three peelers alongside a bowl filled with apples every hue from green to red. In the middle, a box grater in front of another bowl of only green apples and onions.
One of Frances’ PJ-clad daughters took up residence on a stool and asked me what we were making. Her eyes grew wide when she heard about the cake and applesauce. I thought I’d impress her by saying that the applesauce was going to be pink, but she was decidedly not into that. I want applesauce that’s yellow. Like in the refrigerator. Ok, I said, I’ll make a special plain batch just for you.
As the dozen “students” trickled in, I set them to work peeling apples. Ok, everyone, wash your hands. We’re cooking a lot tonight, and we’re gonna get dirty.
We started with an olive oil cake. We whipped eggs and sugar, measured out olive oil and milk and then a flurry of dry ingredients. I say a flurry, because a handful of us got a dusting of flour. We talked about why we zest citrus (it contains essential oils to flavor the cake), what to do with orange blossom water (put it in everything!), and what other flavor combinations might be good (lemon zest and limoncello? apple slices with brandy?).
Cake mixed and in the oven, we cut those peeled apples into chunks and picked through a big bag of cranberries, removing any bad ones and dropping only a bouncy few on the floor. We filled a large pot with the pink applesauce ingredients and set it on a burner over medium heat. The last two apples made their way into a smaller pot without cranberries for the yellow applesauce.
Latkes were up. We grated. First skin-on apples, then onions. (Is it a bad sign when half the class cries? Just checking.) We wrapped the apples and onions in towels, twisting until they released half their weight in liquid. We found the two biggest bowls in the house and filled them with the apples and onions, then topped with grated sweet potato that I had already shredded at home in my food professor. A few eggs, some panko crumbs, thinly-sliced sage, salt and pepper, and two lucky participants dug in elbow deep to mix.
The cake timer went off. A peek at the cake – jiggly in the middle – nope, not ready yet. A quick stir of the sauce on the stove top, the apples had begun to break down, but the berries were still holding their shape.
It was time for the fry. I placed a heavy-bottomed pan on the stove and watched as someone else poured in oil. A thin slick barely coating the pan. Keep going. More? Yes, keep going. More? Yup. Really? Yes. I stuck my finger in the (cold) pan, and the oil reached my first knuckle. Ok, stop. Perfect. We cranked up the heat, and waited.
I tossed in a few shreds of vegetables that sank to the bottom. Not hot enough. A few minutes later, a few more shreds. A few bubbles. Still not hot enough. A few minutes more, a few more shreds. A burst of bubbles lifted the shreds to the top where they started to brown. Bingo.
We started a production line. One team shaped the batter into patties, squeezing out any remaining liquid. Another team carefully slid the patties off the edge of a spatula into the splattering oil. I manned the fry station to get things started. Just like pancakes and crepes, the first few latkes were sacrificed as canaries in the mine of scalding oil until we were able to truly regulate the temperature.
The applesauce was ready – off the stove to cool. The cake was still jiggly – back into the oven.
The latke station was on auto pilot and I finally had a chance to sit, but the natives were getting restless (and my own stomach was grumbling). I pulled out the cake stunt double I had prepared earlier in the day and got slicing. A dollop of cranberry applesauce on the side did the trick.
By then, we had a steady stream of latkes making their way to the table, dodging sneaky fingers.
The cake finally jiggled its last jiggle and was ready to come out. It too disappeared quickly.
Happy Holidays, all!
Still planning your Thanksgiving/Hanukkah menu? I’ve got you covered. How about some sufganiyot? Olive oil gelato? My family will start our meal with spicy butternut squash soup that we sip out of mugs. And this year, I’m making a stuffing using this cornbread and some sort of apple-celery-sage concoction that is still up in the air (maybe something like this?).
And, finally a little reading for those long plane-train-car(-boat?) rides, airport delays, traffic, and times you need to hide from your family.
Did you read the New Yorker’s food issue earlier this month? If not, it’s worth it. Particularly Adam Gopnik on bread and women and Gabrielle Hamilton on family meal.
This video of April Bloomfield making veal shank with the late Marcella Hazan. At 2:47, April says “I like Italian food, Marcella, because it’s so simple,” to which Marcella responds, “Well, we never use too many ingredients.” This reminds me of her famous tomato sauce.
This gave me goose bumps.
And I’d love to find a way to get involved with this.
Sweet potato and apple latkes
Adapted from Amy Traverso’s recipe in Leite’s Culinaria. Soft and creamy inside, crispy on the outside, these are my new go-to latkes.
Make sure to remove as much liquid as possible from the grated ingredients. Roll the grated apple and onion in a kitchen towel (I like flour sack towels) and twist, twist, twist until they are dry. If you were using regular potatoes, you’d wring them out as well, but sweet potatoes have lower moisture content and it’s not necessary.
Regulating the temperature of the frying oil is the moist difficult part. Expect to sacrifice your first few attempts and only make one at a time until you get to the temperature right.
If you want to make the latkes in advance, cool them to room temperature, then stack them in single layers between sheets of parchment or wax paper, and freeze them in a resealable plastic bags. Crisp in a 325°F oven for 15 to 20 minutes before serving. Top with cranberry applesauce.
Makes 25-30 latkes
- 2 pounds garnet or jewel yams or sweet potatoes, peeled
- 3 large (about 1 1/2 pounds total) firm-tart apples such as Granny Smith
- 2 medium onions
- 8-10 leaves sage
- 6 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 cup panko – check
- 1 T coarse kosher salt
- 1 t freshly ground black pepper
- Vegetable or peanut oil, for frying
Prep. Preheat the oven to 200°F. Peel the sweet potatoes. Cut the apples into quarters (don’t peel them). Thinly slice the sage. Line a plate with paper towels
Grate. Using the coarse side of a box grater or a food processor fitted with a medium grating disk, grate the potatoes and scoop into a large bowl. Grate the apple and onion and then roll in a kitchen towel and twist, twist, twist until dry. Add the apple and onion to the bowl and toss everything together. Add the beaten eggs, panko, salt, and pepper and toss to mix well.
Fry. Using your hands, make small patties about ¼-inch thick, squeezing out any remaining moisture. Pour ½-¾ inch oil into a skillet over medium-high heat. The oil is ready when the temperature reaches 370°F. If you don’t have a thermometer, drop a small pinch of the latke mix into the oil – if the oil sizzles and bubbles up, it’s ready to start the trial-and-error process of getting the oil just right. Your first few latkes will be failures as you make small adjustments to the oil temperature. Once you find the your groove, cook 3 or 4 pancakes at a time (do not crowd the pan) until the edges are crisp and well browned and the undersides are golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Gently turn and cook until the other side is golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes longer.
Warm. Transfer the pancakes to paper towels to drain briefly, then arrange in a single layer on 2 baking sheets. Keep the latkes warm in the oven while you cook the remaining pancakes.
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