A Recipe for Latke Failure 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.
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A Recipe for Latke Failure

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A Recipe for Latke Failure

A Recipe for Latke Failure

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JAMES HATTORI, host:

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.

ANDREA: No.

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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