Fried potato is one of the most delicious things you can eat, but I understand not wanting to make potato pancakes from scratch. When hours of work can turn so easily into nothing but grey-brown lumps of sadness and broken dreams, I fully understand the urge to rip off all your clothes and take to the hills, screaming, to live out the rest of your days as a hermit. Or at least, to run out to the store, pick up a pack of frozen hash-browns and call it a day.
And frozen hash-browns are delicious. They were a staple of my college dining hall brunch buffet, and they’re the one frozen potato product sold in the UK that doesn’t suck. (Why is this? This is a largely potato-based culture, you’d think they’d have it figured out by now.) But they are not the same as latkes. Hash-browns are for hangovers, and latkes are for joy.
Latkes are for special occasions. Latkes are for celebrating how great life is and how lucky we are to be living it. Your first thought on eating a latke should be “I can’t believe this is happening to me. I can’t believe I actually get to eat this. I need 5 more of these, immediately.”
The difference-makers in this recipe are threefold:
- Grated potatoes, rather than pureed. Grating potatoes is a pain in the butt, but it’s key to a successful latke. In terms of chunky fries vs. thin fries, (the fatties and the skinnies, if you will), grating your potatoes gives you both the soft comforting heat of a fatty, with a delicious halo of shattering brown crispiness that is the essence of a skinny. If you’ve got a food processor with a grating attachment, now is her time to shine. If not, know that it’s not really Hannukah if you haven’t grated your own knuckles or been spattered with hot oil. Chag sameach.
- A sweet potato. The ratio of one sweet potato to three normal potatoes rounds out the flavor and gives it a gentle depth, as well as a pleasing golden color. I know, it seems sacrilegious and weird, but it’s really no weirder than normal potatoes. Before Europeans knew about potatoes, latkes were made with buckwheat, which is, in a word, depressing. There are a lot of reasons to be sad about what the ancestors went through, but imagine trying to get excited about a buckwheat patty while fighting the Cossacks on one hand and getting pogromed by your neighbors on the other. Religious persecution without the delicious succor of fried potato? Can you IMAGINE?
- A teaspoon of marjoram. What does marjoram taste like? I don’t know. I put marjoram in these in the same way I put bay leaves in stew: on faith. All I know is latkes don’t taste right without it. It’s sweet and warming and yes you have to go get some for this recipe, no you are not allowed to skip, nuance is what makes special things special, don’t give me that face. Also, it goes in shepherd’s pie, so it’s got more than one use, so there.
Homemade latkes fresh from the pan are hot and crispy beacons of light in a dark winter. So, as we suffer through this, the stupidest year in living memory, take advantage of your full and unhindered access to potatoes to make something truly scrumptious.
Feeds 2, double the recipe for 4
3 large baking potatoes (the floury kind, not the waxy kind. I forget why this is important, something about starch content.)
1 large sweet potato
1 medium-small onion (closer to a tennis ball than a baseball, but not like a ping-pong ball. Or a softball. You know.)
1 egg, beaten
1 tbsp flour
1 generous tsp dried marjoram
Salt and pepper to taste (probably about ½ tsp each)
More vegetable oil than you’d think
- Peel your potatoes, both sweet and normal, and let them hang out in a bowl of cold water so they don’t turn grey.
- Line a large bowl with a kitchen towel and grate your potatoes and onion into it on the big-hole side of your box grater. Make sure to flatten your hand as you get to the end of the usable potato nub so you don’t cut your knuckles by accident 1 (I have never achieved an accident-free batch of latkes). If you have a food processor, use the grating attachment and go to town, and also I hate you.
- Once all of the vegetables are grated, gather the sides of the towel and twist to squeeze out the potato water.2 Put your back into it – the water carries starch, which will make your latkes gummy if too much stays in. You should get a good half cup or more of orange potato water in the bottom of the bowl.
- Ditch the potato water and wipe out the bowl so it’s dry, then shake the vegetable shreds into the bowl.
- Add your beaten egg, marjoram, flour, salt and pepper to the potato mixture and mix well with a fork. It will be a little dry, and you will go “wait did this recipe have two eggs in it or one?” and from the couch your sister will say “no it’s one, it always looks this dry” and you will go “ok cool.”
- Generously coat the bottom of a deep frying pan with the neutral oil of your choice (canola, vegetable, sunflower, whatever, at least ¼ cup) and heat on medium-high until it shimmers. Drop batter by the tablespoonful into hot oil and flatten gently (I usually just use my mixing fork).
- Turn the heat down to medium-low and Leave Them Alone. This is the key to successful latke-making. If you push and prod and turn them too much, they will fall apart and turn into hash-browns, which, as we’ve discussed, is not the point of this recipe.
- The latkes are ready to turn when the edges are brown3 and they move as a cohesive unit (3 or 4 minutes). Because the batter is so thick, you want to make sure the heat is gentle enough that the outsides don’t burn before the middles are cooked through. What I’m saying is, latkes take forever. Yes, you have to make them all now, or the batter will oxidize and turn grey and horrible (but still edible). Put on some motivational music and take turns at the stove with whoever you live with.
- When latkes are finished cooking, remove from hot oil to a paper towel-covered plate if you’re eating them now, or a rimmed baking sheet if you want to reheat them in the oven later. From cold, they take about 20 minutes in a low oven (325f).
- Try not to fight with your loved ones over who gets the first one. They’re traditionally eaten with sour cream and applesauce, but you can do smoked salmon or caviar if you’re fancy, or anything else you care to try.