Sonoma County chef’s advice for frying perfect latkes for Hanukkah
A latke is a latke is a latke ... or is it?
If you think you know latkes but you’re still making your bubbe’s traditional recipe and smothering it with applesauce and sour cream, think again.
That’s delicious, but so Old Country.
Bruce Riezenman, a longtime Sonoma County chef who co-owns Park Avenue Catering with Ari Weiswasser of the Glen Ellen Star, prefers to top his latkes with slices of his Citrus-Cured Salmon, a dollop of crème fraîche, a sprinkle of herbs and a handful of briny capers.
“That’s the food that I always think about when we talk about Hanukkah,” he said. “It’s pretty much the only time of year I make them ... with the crème fraîche and capers, that’s a beautiful thing.”
The chef has spent a lifetime perfecting the delicious potato pancakes he used to eat as a child with his parents and grandparents during Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. The holiday accompanied by gift giving and games such as spinning the dreidel begins this year on Thursday, Dec. 10.
One of the chef’s secrets to making latkes is to use the onion juice to keep the potatoes from oxidizing and turning brown. He also recycles the potato starch, squeezed out of the spuds and drained in a bowl, to help bind the pancakes together.
“That’s what makes this recipe more unique than most,” he said. “I use the starch to mix back in with the eggs and matzoh meal.”
Raised in Brooklyn and Queens, Riezenman and his family always celebrated Hanukkah with a menorah burning with Hanukkah candles and the requisite fried foods, symbolizing the miracle of the oil in the temple.
As the story goes, the eight-day festival of Hanukkah (which means “dedication” in Hebrew) celebrates the second century B.C. rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where the Jews had risen up against their Greek-Syrian oppressors during the Maccabean Revolt.
After driving the Syrians out, the Jews rebuilt the temple’s altar and relighted its candelabrum, its symbolic branches designed to keep burning every night. Even though there was only enough olive oil to keep the candles burning for a single day, the flames continued flickering for eight nights.
“That was the miracle of Hanukkah,” Riezenman said. “Not being a very religious person, I’ve always looked at the holiday as reflecting the freedoms we have in this country. When my kids were young, I would explain that we can put a menorah in our window, and no one is going to bother us.”
Through the years, Riezenman has also shared his recipe and techniques for making top-notch latkes — creamy and pillowy on the inside, wispy and crispy on the outside — with his kids.
This month, due to the pandemic, Park Avenue Catering is offering a special Hanukkah dinner for delivery or pickup that includes a Green Salad with Tahini-Apple Cider Vinaigrette, Caramelized Onion Braised Brisket, Roasted Winter Veggies and Jelly-Filled Challah Donuts. You also can add on a half dozen or a dozen latkes, so you don’t have to fry them up at home (to order: parkavecater.com and click on holiday).
But if you’re up to the challenge, here are Riezenman’s top 10 secrets to making the most delicious latkes you’ll ever serve at your Hanukkah table:
1 - Make sure to keep everything cold before making the mixture.
2 - Use a food processor to grate the onions, pulsing them into small pieces (stopping short of pureeing them).
3 - When you grate the russet potatoes, grate them into long strips.
4 - Add the chopped parsley and chives to the potato mixture at the very end, then mix until you see that they are well distributed. That lets you know that all the ingredients are integrated. Keep stirring the mixture as you make new latkes, to reintegrate the liquid into the mixture.
5 - Make the latke mixture at least 20 minutes early and refrigerate. That way the matzah meal can absorb the liquid from the onions and potatoes.
6 - Use a large tablespoon to scoop the latke mixture out, and do not press the mixture together. You want to make loose pancakes that will stay airy in the pan.
7 - As the frying continues, be aware that the latkes will brown up more quickly.
8 - Take the latkes out when they have a nice brown color on both the top and the bottom, then transfer them to a baking sheet and hold in a 350-degree oven for about 10 more minutes. That way, they will continue to cook through to the center while staying warm.
9 - If you are giving a party, you may want to fry up the latkes ahead of time, then hold at room temperature. When ready to serve, put them in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes or so to reheat.
10 - When removing latkes from the pan, place on paper towels first to absorb the excess oil.