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Seasonal pantry: Celebrate the return of light with latkes

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Happy first day of Christmas! In case you’re thinking it all ends today, it doesn’t.

The 12 days of Christmas start on Dec. 25 and end Jan. 5. Even then, there are still two remaining days of Christianity’s major holiday season. Jan. 6 is known alternately as Epiphany, King’s Day, King’s Night and Twelfth Night. In New Orleans, it’s also the start of carnival. Jan. 7 is Eastern Orthodox Christmas, celebrated primarily in Eastern Europe and Russia.

One of the sadder sights of the season is a Christmas tree, often with a strand or two of tinsel or an overlooked ornament, set out for trash collectors on Dec. 26. My family tradition calls for a tree on Dec. 24 that is not taken down until sometime after Jan. 7.

Early Christians snagged the pagan winter holidays, which stretch from the solstice, or Yule, into early January. It has, for millennia, been a time when our ancestors celebrated the return of light, as daylight begins increasing as of the solstice. Christians were wildly successful in adding a religious overlay to the season, although remnants of earlier times remain. Even the Christmas tree and the yule log have pagan roots.

Theologians and others do not agree on the exact date of the birth of Jesus Christ, but few insist it was in December. March or September are the times I hear most often. Christmas is a celebration of his birth, not a commemoration.

Today is the fourth day of Hanukah, too, which is also a celebration of light. It continues for a total of eight days.

Both Christmas and Hanukah have traditional foods, though many of the Christmas dishes are regional and vary widely from country to country.

The same is true, though to a lesser degree, of Hanukkah; there is a lot of variety. But explore the food traditions of the holiday, and you will always find latkes; they are always served with sour cream and applesauce.

No matter what you celebrate or don’t celebrate at this time of year, take a moment to slow down, enjoy the night sky and celebrate the earth’s natural light, along with candles and the twinkling lights we seem to put on everything, not just Christmas trees, these days.

A challenging year is drawing to its close, the days are growing longer and spring is not that far off.

_____

Recipes for traditional latkes have been circulating for decades, at least. This version is about as simple it get, and it offers great results, time after time. Of course, it’s most traditional to serve latkes with sour cream and applesauce, but you don’t need to limit yourself to tradition. Following the recipe, I offer some of my favorite condiments to go with these crisp little morsels.

Traditional Latkes

Makes about 16 to 18 cakes

1 ½ pounds Yukon Gold or russet potatoes, washed and peeled

1 large yellow onion, trimmed and peeled

2 large eggs

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3 teaspoons kosher salt

— Black pepper in a mill

½ cup mild olive oil, clarified butter or chicken fat (schmaltz), plus more as needed

— Condiments of your choice (see note below)

If the potatoes are damp from being rinsed, pat them dry with a clean tea towel.

Using the large grating blade of a box grater or a food processor, grate the potatoes and the onion.

Put the onion and the potato into a large strainer set over a deep bowl, add a teaspoon of salt and toss gently. Let sit for about 15 minutes, then use a large wooden spoon to press out as much liquid as possible.

Tip the strainer of potatoes and onion into a separate bowl. Pour off the liquid that was released, leaving behind any potato starch that has gathered in the bottom of the bowl.

Break the eggs into the bowl with the potato starch and use a whisk to beat the eggs until they are creamy and pale yellow. Add the flour and mix well. Add the remaining salt and several very generous turns of black pepper. Set aside.

Lay several layers of absorbent paper on a large baking sheet and set in a 200-degree oven.

Set a large, heavy sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the fat and when it’s hot, add 3 tablespoons of the batter. Use a spatula to press on the batter to form a 3 ½-inch disk. Add more batter without crowding the latkes. You should be able to make 3 at a time.

Cook for 1 minute, then use a thin metal spatula to lift up an edge of a latke. If it is golden brown, turn it over; if not, cook for 1 minute more and then turn. Cook for another minute or two, until golden brown on both sides. Transfer to the baking sheet to drain. When you transfer, hold the latke over the pan for a few seconds so that excess oil drips back into it.

Continue until all the batter has been used, using more fat as needed. If you have the fat hot enough, you likely will not need more.

Serve hot, with your preferred condiments.

Suggested Condiments: Sour cream and applesauce; crème fraiche and thinly sliced green onions; plain whole milk yogurt and apple chutney; chopped fresh Italian parsley; chopped fresh cilantro; red onion marmalade; cranberry relish; hot pepper jam.

For the most elegant latkes, serve with creme fraiche or sour cream, snipped chives, and the best caviar you can afford.

_____

In 2011, Congregation Shomrei Torah of Santa Rosa published a sweet little cookbook, “Oy to Joy: Recipes From Our Wine Country Kitchen.” These sweet potato latkes were contributed by congregation member Sherry Catlett. They have just a whisper of heat, which offsets the sweetness in a delightful way. Serve them as an appetizer or alongside fried fish or roast chicken.

Sweet Potato Latkes

Makes 12 servings

— Olive oil

2 large eggs

6 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne

1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and shredded

4 green onions, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

— Whole milk yogurt or sour cream

1 cucumber, chopped

— Mint leaves, for garnish

Brush 2 baking sheets, preferably nonstick, with olive oil. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Break the eggs into a medium bowl and whisk until smooth and pale. Add the flour, salt, coriander, cumin and cayenne and whisk thoroughly. Fold in the potatoes and half the green onion and cilantro. Using a small measuring cup as a scoop, shape 3 tablespoons of the mixture into a 3-inch pancake and set on the baking sheet. Continue until all of the potato mixture has been used.

Bake until set and lightly browned on the bottom, about 12 to 14 minutes. Turn and bake until cooked through, about 5 minutes more.

While the latkes cook, put the remaining green onions and cilantro, the yogurt or sour cream and cucumber in separate dishes.

Transfer to a platter or individual plates, garnish with mint leaves, and serve right away, with condiments alongside.

Michele Anna Jordan has written 24 books to date. Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

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