Hanukkah may be a very minor holiday in the greater scheme of things but that’s probably why it’s one of my favorite times of year. The two parts of it that I love best seem to resonate for me on a deeply human level.
The first is the traditional lighting of candles each evening. Hanukkah is the Jewish celebration of light commemorating an uprising against the Greeks in the second century BC. According to legend, the eternal light in the Temple in Jerusalem was never supposed to go out, but a “miracle” allowed a one-day’s ration of oil to last for eight days and nights. So, each night our family gathers together, lights candles and sings songs in Hebrew. When our kids were smaller, their neighborhood friends used to show up and celebrate with us, probably for the chocolate coins we handed out afterwards. But after a week, they were all singing the Hebrew songs with the rest of us! It’s a very intimate experience with candlelight and song during the darkest days of the year, something that almost never happens at any other time. It’s a tradition that always brings us closer together as a family.
The other tradition is making potato pancakes – or latkes. Since OIL is a central part of the Hanukkah story, Jews everywhere celebrate by frying things. In Israel, they make doughnuts, sufganiyot; in Eastern Europe they fry potatoes. The recipe for my latkes came with my great-grandmother Anna on the boat from Vilna, Lithuania, and she passed it down to my grandmother and mother. When my mother got older, I took over the cooking from her. Our latkes are incredibly delicious and come out perfect every time. The taste of these potato pancakes always brings me back to the ones I ate as a kid – as it did for my Mom, and her mom before her. This simple food connects us with generations of relatives who came before us, enjoying their golden goodness while huddled in shtetls and ghettos.
When my daughter was younger, she would start bugging me to make latkes in October. Now, she’s a fit, health-conscious vegetarian. Normally, she’d turn up her nose at white potatoes fried in lots of oil. But during Hanukkah, she humors me and indulges herself, because she realizes it’s not just about the food; the entire holiday is about intimacy, family, warmth and light on a dark evening.
Grandma Bea’s Perfect Shtetl Latkes
By Rich Nadworny
2 lbs. white potatoes
1 small onion
3 Tbsp flour
1 tsp baking powder
Salt to taste
Peel the potatoes. Grate them by hand on the coarser side of the grater. Grate them them into a collander over a large bowl. Let the grated potatoes drain into the bowl for 15 minutes.
Grate the onion on the coarse side of the grater. Mix the eggs.
When the potatoes have drained, carefully pour off the water from the bowl but make sure you keep the white sticky starch that’s on the bottom of the bowl. That’s the super secret ingredient. Scrape the starch with a spoon and then mix in the potatoes into the bowl. Add the eggs, grated oninon, flour, baking powder and salt.
Heat up a pan and fill with a cup of oil. When the oil is hot, put in tablespoon dollops of the potato mixture and fry until golden brown, then flip and brown the other side.
Place paper towels on a cookie sheet and place the finished latkes on the towels. Keep warm in oven on lowest temperature. Add more oil to the pan when frying the rest of the latkes, make sure the oil level doesn’t get too low, or the heat too hot as not to singe the latkes.
Serve with apple sauce or sour cream. Or just salt some more and eat plain.