A Recipe for Latke Failure

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Latkes are a traditional food of Hanukkah, but reporter Tamara Keith couldn't figure out how to make them, even with the help of her mother-in-law's recipe. After spending some time in the kitchen with her mother-in-law, she learned that the recipe was to blame.


Back now with DAY TO DAY.

Tomorrow is the last night of Hanukkah, so it's not too late to enjoy one of the great culinary traditions of the Jewish holiday. They're latkes or deep-fried potato pancakes.

Tamara Keith of member station KQED recently learned how to cook them the right way.

TAMARA KEITH: When I was converting to Judaism, my rabbi strongly recommended that I buy some cookbooks. It seems part of learning to be Jewish was learning to cook Jewish foods. Growing up Methodist in a small town, my first introduction to latkes was in college after I met my boyfriend, Ira. The potato pancakes Ira's mom Andrea and sister Shannon made were terrific. Crispy and warm, dunked in apple sauce for that perfect balance of grease and fruit.

I asked for the recipe and Andrea photocopied a page from a paperback cookbook. The next year at Hanukkah, I followed the recipe exactly but the latkes came out all wrong, like over-crisp hash browns. Failure after failure led me to Manishevitz instant latkes. Just add eggs. It's like defeat in a box. Ira and I are married now, so it finally seemed okay to go back to my now my mother-in-law and ask her what I had been doing wrong. The first step is easy, peeling the potatoes.

And then what comes next?

ANDREA (Mother-in-Law): Next we have to grate the potatoes the proper amount of smoothness and roughness. They have to be smoother than hash browns, but we don't want them to be completely mushy.

KEITH: Which none of this is actually in the recipe.


KEITH: The whole consistency thing.

ANDREA: This is the magic of Jewish tradition and family tradition.

KEITH: So clearly following the recipe all those years was just setting me up for failure. As we cooked, Shannon and Andrea keep referring to them as Poppy's latkes. Really, the recipe they're following isn't the one in the book but the one they watched Poppy make year after year. He was Andrea's grandfather.

ANDREA: My mother was brought up with Poppy being the cook. Things that he made and the way that he made it were the things that my mother learned and the things that she passed down to me and the things that I passed down to my daughter.

KEITH: Next, we take a blob of the potato mixture and put it in the frying pan loaded with oil. After several minutes of frying and flipping, the latkes are done. We put them on a plate with a paper towel to sop up some of the oil.

ANDREA: And it's usually while they're sitting out there on the paper towel getting the grease strained out of them that they start to magically disappear. There's no resentment there at all. It's just part of the tradition.

KEITH: And right on cue my husband Ira appears in the kitchen and grabs a fresh latke from the plate.

KEITH: How was it?

IRA (Husband): Hot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANDREA: Wait a little longer.

KEITH: All the cookbooks in the world can't replace an hour or two in the kitchen with family. And now I too can make Poppy's latkes, no recipe needed.

For NPR News, I'm Tamara Keith.

HATTORI: And if you are looking for an easy-to-follow latke recipe, we've got one, and lot of other tasty stuff, at npr.org.

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Hanukkah Lights and Latkes

Potato latkes with sour cream and applesauce

Potato latkes (above) and brisket make for a traditional Hanukkah dinner; there are never any leftovers at writer Bonny Wolf's house. Recipes below hide caption

toggle caption

Hanukkah commemorates a miracle involving oil. So a natural place to celebrate is in a frying pan.

After years of experimentation, I have settled on a huge, cast-iron pan for frying latkes, the traditional Hanukkah potato pancakes. It cooks evenly and retains heat. You also get a great workout, since it weighs a ton.

About the Author

Bonny Wolf is a regular contributor to Kitchen Window and to NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday. She is working on a book of food essays for St. Martin's Press.

Every year, we have the same Hanukkah meal: latkes and brisket. I make a green salad, but it's fairly irrelevant.

Apparently, you can make latkes ahead and reheat them in the oven, but I think this is a bad idea. They'll never be as hot, as greasy or as crisp. (I do make the brisket in advance so I can skim off the fat that congeals after a day in the refrigerator.)

I once heard about someone who made what she thought would be healthier latkes by "frying" them in a pan coated with Pam. No one would eat them. For the right texture and flavor, latkes must be fried in oil. Period.

If the temperature is hot enough, the pancakes don't absorb much fat. I use peanut oil, which has the high smoke point desirable for frying. I have a friend who uses goose fat. That is really good — and really rich. Whatever the medium, it should be about 1/2-inch deep to reach and keep the high temperature you need for crisp pancakes. If the oil starts smoking, turn down the heat. Note: Your house will smell like grease for about a month.

Some people like sour cream with their latkes. However, I think applesauce is even better. Jarred applesauce isn't bad if you heat it up and add a little cinnamon. But it's easy to make your own applesauce in the microwave. It's not only better, but prettier. I leave the skin on so the sauce has a pink tinge. You can also make a chunkier sauce if you do it yourself.

Everyone has an opinion on how to make latkes. Some people grate them by hand. These latkes really look like pancakes. I use the food processor with the thickest shredding blade. My latkes look like hash brown patties.

There are recipes for latkes made with apples, zucchini and sweet potatoes. Nothing is wrong with these additives. They just don't belong in latkes.

Then there's the question of type of potato. I think oblong baking potatoes (also called russet or Idaho) work best. They have less moisture than boiling potatoes, ergo, crisper latkes. I have eaten latkes made from store-bought mixes. They are a crime against man and a crime against nature.

For the record, Hanukkah is a minor holiday in Judaism: It's one of the few Jewish holidays not mentioned in the Bible. But it's a good story. In the 2nd century B.C.E., Judah Maccabee and his brothers defeated Hellenistic-Syrian King Antiochus IV, who was trying to wipe out Judaism.

When they chased the enemy out of Jerusalem, the Maccabees found their temple had been desecrated. They had only one small vial of untainted olive oil — enough, they thought, to burn for only one day. But to their surprise, the oil lasted the eight days — the time they needed to get more consecrated oil and rededicate the temple. This miracle is celebrated by lighting a candle for each of the eight days of Hanukkah and frying potato pancakes in boiling oil.

Over the years, the holiday's status has been raised by its proximity to Christmas. In fact, the tradition of gift giving at Hanukkah evolved so that Jewish children would get as many presents as their Christian classmates.

Nevertheless, it still is a lovely holiday, with feasting an integral part of the celebration. And no matter how much brisket I make or how many latkes I fry, there are never any leftovers.

Sauerbraten a la Nathan

I use this recipe from Joan Nathan's Jewish Holiday Kitchen (Schocken Books, 1979) every year for Hanukkah. It's her mother's recipe, and it's easy and delicious.

Serves 8.

2 teaspoons salt

3 tablespoons brown sugar

1 cup chili sauce

1 1/2 cups white vinegar

2 teaspoons seasoning salt

1 5-pound brisket of beef, shoulder roast of beef, chuck roast or end of steak

1 cup chopped celery leaves

2 onions, sliced

Mix salt, brown sugar, chili sauce, vinegar and seasoning salt together. Pour over meat and let stand overnight in the refrigerator.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place the meat in an ovenproof casserole, pouring marinade over meat. Cover with the celery leaves and onions.

Cover and bake for about 3 hours, basting often with marinade every half hour or so. Remove cover and bake for 1 more hour. (Allow approximately 1 hour per pound for roasting.) Meat should flake easily with a fork.

This dish is best prepared in advance so the fat can be skimmed easily from the surface. When ready to serve, slice and reheat in the strained pan marinade.


This very basic potato pancake recipe is from Jewish Cookery by Leah W. Leonard (Crown Publishers, 1949). It always works.

Serves 4-6.

6 medium potatoes

1 onion

2 eggs

½ cup flour

1 teaspoon salt

Vegetable shortening or oil for deep frying (I use peanut oil, but any kind of vegetable oil will do)

Pare and grate potatoes into a mixing bowl. Squeeze out liquid. Peel and grate onion into potatoes. (I grate both together in the food processor). Add eggs, flour and salt and stir to make a smooth batter that will drop heavily from the spoon. Heap the shortening in a heavy frying pan (use a heavy, cast-iron skillet for the best results), using enough to cover the pancakes amply — about a 1/2-inch deep. Drop the batter from a spoon into the hot shortening, making pancakes about 3 inches in diameter. Fry over moderate heat until brown on the underside, turn to brown other side. Lift out and drain off excess fat on paper towel. Serve plain, with sour cream or applesauce.



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