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History good enough to eat

It's unclear exactly how potato pancakes came to be associated with Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, but it's a tradition well worth serving.

By JANET K. KEELER
© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 5, 2001


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[Times photo: Patty Yablonski]
Latkes
ST. PETERSBURG -- Sharon and Alan Koenig have run their happy 41-year marriage by this motto: "What I make, he eats; what he makes, I spend."

After spending an afternoon in Mrs. Koenig's kitchen, we know he's got a good deal.

Mrs. Koenig is the kind of cook whose grown daughters ask her for lessons. They want to make rugelach and latkes just like Mom.

That's not so unusual, except that Mrs. Koenig must haul knowledge and equipment to Austin, Texas, and Seattle, where they live, for cooking classes.

As Hanukkah nears, Mrs. Koenig's daughters will no doubt yearn for her crisp latkes, or fried potato pancakes. We asked for a latke cooking class of our own, and Mrs. Koenig agreed to share her expertise with Times readers. It's not a difficult endeavor but, as with anything, practice makes perfect. Mrs. Koenig, 61, has had plenty of that; she's made thousands of latkes in her lifetime.

In Jewish households all over America, latkes (LAHT-kuhs) will be on Hanukkah menus, representing the meager but mighty oil that lit the lamps in the reclaimed Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 165 B.C.

When the Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated the Syrian king and retook the Temple, they found that most of the lamp oil had been polluted. There didn't seem to be enough to light the Temple for even one day. Miraculously, however, the smidgen that remained burned for eight days and eight nights.

Hanukkah, the eight-day Festival of Lights, which begins at sundown Sunday, celebrates the rededication of the temple, along with freedom from religious and ideological persecution. Latkes and sweet sufganiyot (doughnuts) represent the miracle of the oil.

Like many other women, Mrs. Koenig learned to make latkes from her own mother, who raised her family in Atlanta. Cooking has always been Mrs. Koenig's passion, and she's well-known for her acumen. Her name is offered without hesitation at Congregation B'Nai Israel as one of the St. Petersburg synagogue's best latke makers.

She's flattered by that proclamation, but she does have lots and lots of experience at the frying pan to support her reputation. Since the late '60s, she has held several food-related posts at the synagogue. She was kitchen chairwoman for the temple's chapter of Sisterhood, the Jewish women's organization, and oversaw kosher food preparation at the synagogue. That duty evolved into a catering business, Eppis Essen, which means "things to eat" in Yiddish. For 15 years, Mrs. Koenig and her husband, 63, who is a retired ceramic engineer, catered Jewish affairs all over the Tampa Bay area, finally giving it up in the early '80s.

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Sharon Koenig has earned a reputation as an expert latke maker. Latkes, or potato pancakes, are a staple at Hanukkah meals.
Today, Mrs. Koenig is a kosher supervisor, overseeing food preparation at wedding receptions, bar mitzvahs, conferences and other gatherings at restaurants and hotels as the representative of the rabbi. She makes sure that kosher dietary laws are followed to the letter.

Though latkes are much loved at Hanukkah, it is unclear why potato pancakes became associated with the holiday.

According to Faye Levy, author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes (Hungry Minds Inc., 2000), potatoes were unknown in the land of Israel at the time of the Maccabees. The tubers are from the New World and only became familiar to Europeans long after Columbus' historic voyage. Eventually potatoes made their way to Eastern Europe and Russia, where potato pancakes were most likely developed. In Germany, potato pancakes are called kartoffelpuffers, or puffers for short, and are served with applesauce and sour cream.

"The point of eating latkes at Hanukkah," says Mrs. Koenig, "is eating the oil."

Many Jewish cookbooks have recipes for curried latkes and sweet potato latkes and even dessert latkes, flavored with cranberries, raisins or apples. Mrs. Koenig isn't much for variations on the theme. She likes her latkes straight up, the way Mom used to make them.

However, Mom didn't have a Cuisinart to shred the potatoes. She used the knuckle-punishing grater, as Mrs. Koenig did until innovation came along and made the process gentler. Mrs. Koenig lets the Cuisinart make quick work of the potatoes, peels and all. She scrubs them well first and removes any blemishes with a knife.

The formula for traditional latkes is simple. Shredded potatoes, beaten eggs, salt and white pepper, chopped onion and flour. Mrs. Koenig uses matzo meal instead of flour; she says it makes the pancakes crisper. She also adds a pinch of baking powder to the mixture, which gives the latkes a puffy lightness. Workhorse russet potatoes are best, because their starchiness holds the mixture together.

If you are making a lot of batter, keep the shredded potatoes under water to prevent them from turning brown when exposed to air. Mrs. Koenig says her mother covered the potatoes and onions with a layer of matzo meal to protect against oxidation until she was ready to mix the ingredients.

Liquid is the enemy of latkes. Too much liquid from the onions and potatoes make soggy, greasy pancakes that fall apart in the pan. Mrs. Koenig says that sometimes you'll hit a batch of potatoes with a higher water content. If the batter is too runny, she adds more matzo meal.

In making a small batch for us, Mrs. Koenig didn't drain the potatoes, but many recipes suggest doing that. You can even wrap the potato shreds in cheesecloth and squeeze for all you're worth. If the mixture is used right away, Mrs. Koenig says, the potatoes and onions don't have time to weep.

After the ingredients are mixed (the result will look like thick pancake batter), the oil is heated. Always use fresh oil; peanut or vegetable works best. Fill a good, heat-conducting frying pan -- Mrs Koenig uses stainless steel -- with a half-inch to an inch of oil. Heat it to about 350 degrees. Test the temperature by dropping a teaspoon of latke mixture into the pan. If it turns golden brown within a minute, the oil is ready for frying.

Mrs. Koenig uses a serving spoon to scoop out the mixture, which gives her about a quarter-cup. She places the spoonful in the hot oil and flattens the mound with the back of the spoon. When the pancake is browned on one side, about two to three minutes, she flips it with a spatula.

(Don't feel bad if you overcook the first batch. It may take a batch or two to get the hang of it. Remember, though, the oil will get hotter the longer it sits on the burner.)

Latkes must be watched diligently. The distraction of a ringing phone or an insistent child can cause the whole batch to burn.

Mrs. Koenig says latkes are best eaten the minute they are cool enough to pop in the mouth. Indeed, at the Koenigs' house it's tough to keep up with the noshers who hang around the kitchen waiting to grab the latkes as soon as possible.

Latkes can be kept warm in a 200-degree oven, but make sure they are placed on paper towels to drain; otherwise they'll get soggy.

Mrs. Koenig has made latkes from potato flakes, especially when frying hundreds for catered events. She got this recipe not from her mother but from a cooking instructor. Potato flake pancakes are slightly puffier and more uniform than those made from shredded potatoes. They mimic the variety of potato pancakes made from mashed potatoes.

We sampled Mrs. Koenig's latkes, both fresh and flake versions, with thick sour cream and chunky applesauce heaped on top. Such simple delights they were. A fitting tribute to the ancient battle in Israel.

Mr. Koenig, who likes his latkes browner and crisper than most, thinks so, too.

Sharon's Fresh Potato Pancakes

  • 4 well-scrubbed medium potatoes
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 medium onion, peeled
  • 1/4 cup matzo meal
  • Salt and white pepper to taste
  • Pinch baking powder

Cut potatoes and onion into chunks, place in food processor and process until thoroughly grated. Add other ingredients; process until smooth. Spoon into large frying pan with about 1 inch of hot oil. Turn when brown.

Drain on paper towels. Eat immediately with applesauce, sour cream or salt.

-- Source: Sharon Koenig, St. Petersburg.

Mr. Brown's Potato Pancakes

  • 2 eggs
  • 1-1/2 pints milk
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 11/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 cups potato flakes
  • 1/4 teaspoon white pepper
  • 5 teaspoons dried onion flakes

Beat eggs and combine with milk in a large bowl. In second bowl, blend potato flakes, onion flakes and other dry ingredients. Add to liquids. Let stand 10-15 minutes. Spoon into 1 inch of hot oil in a large frying pan. Turn once. Drain on paper towels. Serves 8-10.

-- Source: Sharon Koenig, St. Petersburg.

Mollie's Low-Fat Latkes

  • 4 extra-large egg whites
  • 1 small onion, peeled and cubed
  • 4 large Russet potatoes (about 21/2 pounds or 6 cups), peeled, cut into 1-inch cubes and covered with cold water
  • 1/3 cup fine dried bread crumbs, matzo meal or white flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • Salt to taste
  • Canola oil

Put the egg whites, onion and 2 cups of drained potato cubes in a food processor with blade in place. Process 3/4 seconds or until finely chopped.

Add the remaining, well-drained potatoes and process, using pulsing action, until finely minced. Do not puree or overblend.

Pour into a mixing bowl; add the bread crumbs, pepper and salt. Stir to blend.

Pour 2-3 tablespoons canola oil into a 10- to 12-inch heavy nonstick skillet coated with nonstick vegetable spray. Place over medium-high heat. When hot, drop heaping tablespoons of the potato mixture into the oil, using the back of the spoon to flatten the latkes. Fry until brown and crisp, about 4 minutes. Turn only once to avoid greasy latkes and do not crowd the skillet.

When golden brown on both sides and crisp, drain on a large brown paper bag or paper towels. Place on a cake rack set on a shallow baking sheet and put in a 250-degree oven to keep warm and to further drain fat while you cook the remaining latkes.

Makes 12 servings (2 pancakes per serving). Nutritional information: 142 calories 142, 4.8 gm fat 4.8 gm, 1.8 gm fiber, 0 cholesterol, 67 mg sodium.

Source: "Deliciously Healthy Jewish Cooking" by Harriet Roth (Dutton, 1996).

Sweet Potato Pancakes

  • 3/4 pound sweet potatoes
  • 1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1-1/2 cups milk
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted

Place sweet potatoes in a medium saucepan of boiling water and cook until tender but firm, about 15 minutes. Drain and immediately immerse in cold water to loosen skins. Drain, remove skins, chop and mash.

In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, salt and nutmeg. Mix mashed sweet potatoes, eggs, milk and butter in a separate medium bowl. Blend sweet potato mixture into the flour mixture to form a batter.

Preheat a lightly greased griddle over medium-high heat. Drop batter mixture onto the prepared griddle by heaping tablespoonfuls and cook until golden brown, turning once with a spatula when the surface begins to bubble.

Makes 24 pancakes, 3 per serving. Per serving: 224 calories 224, 6 gm protein, 8 gm fat, 502 mg sodium, 72 mg cholesterol, 31 gm carbohydrates, 2 gm fiber.

-- Source: www.allrecipes.com.

Curried Sweet Potato Latkes

  • 1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 teaspoons curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup milk (approximately)
  • Peanut oil for frying

Grate the sweet potatoes coarsely. In a separate bowl mix the flour, sugar, brown sugar, baking powder, cayenne pepper, curry powder, cumin, salt and pepper. Add the eggs and just enough milk to the dry ingredients to make a stiff batter. Add the potatoes and mix. The batter should be moist but not runny; if too stiff, add more milk.

Heat 1/4 inch of peanut oil in a frying pan until it is barely smoking. Drop the batter by tablespoons and flatten. Fry over medium-high heat several minutes on each side until golden. Drain on paper towels and serve. Makes 16 3-inch pancakes.

-- Source: "Jewish Cooking in America" by Joan Nathan (Random House, 1998).

Potato, Artichoke and Feta Cheese Latkes

  • 1-1/2 pounds red-skinned potatoes
  • 1 9-ounce package frozen artichoke hearts, thawed, diced, patted dry
  • 2/3 cup chopped leek (white and pale green parts only)
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 large egg, beaten to blend
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 6 ounces feta cheese, diced
  • 1-1/2 cups (about) fresh French bread crumbs
  • 8 tablespoons (about) olive oil

Cook potatoes in pot of boiling salted water until just tender, about 20 minutes. Drain. Cool completely and peel.

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Place baking sheet in oven. Using hand grater, coarsely grate potatoes into large bowl. Add artichokes and leek. Mix Parmesan, egg, mint, oregano, salt and pepper in small bowl. Add to potato mixture. Stir in feta and enough bread crumbs to form mixture that holds together. Firmly press 1/2 cup mixture into 31/2-inch round. Repeat with remaining mixture.

Heat 6 tablespoons oil in large skillet over medium heat. Place 4 pancakes into skillet. Cook until brown, about 6 minutes per side. Transfer to sheet in oven to keep warm. Repeat with remaining pancakes, adding more oil to skillet by tablespoonfuls as necessary. Serve hot with plain yogurt mixed with chopped mint. Makes about 12.

-- Source: Bon Appetit magazine, December 1995.

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