The lighting of the first candle of Hanukkah takes place on the 25th of Kislev, which usually falls during the month of December. It is the occasion for a number of Jews to celebrate the holiday by making latkes.
Earlier this week, Vera reminded us the history of this holiday and the customs associated with it, including the tradition of preparing sfenj, these Moroccan beignets that she was raised on. Actually, it is customary to prepare fried dishes or desserts to symbolize the miracle of the oil.
In Sephardic families like mine, mainly Jews from North Africa, beignet is king throughout the eight-day festival. But in Ashkenazi families like my wife’s, Jews from Eastern Europe and Central Europe mainly, where fried dishes are not as common as in sephardic cuisine (and where spices and herbs are rare as well, but that’s another story), there is however also a typical Hanukkah fried specialty: latkes.
During my research, I could not find any source that would attribute the origin of these latkes to a specific country. It seems that this recipe has been passed through all the shtetls and cities from generation to generation.
So it was a family arbitration, that for once allowed me to assign this specialty to Poland.
Anne reminded me of the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Polish Jewish writer of the twentieth century. He wrote touching stories, full of questions, sometimes with a touch of humor and borderline supernatural, to revive the lives of the Polish Jewish people from before the war.
A rich literary work which also earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978 “for his enthusiastic storytelling art, rooted in the culture and traditions of Polish Jewish people and resurrects the universality of the human condition.”
And this is how these latkes resurfaced, quoted in some of his novels including The Family Moskat (1950) as “Hanukkah pancakes” prepared by the Polish Jewish mothers of Warsaw the time.
It is interesting to note that in Poland, latkes are prepared and eaten throughout the year. In the latter case, they are served as an accompaniment to meat, poultry or fish, whereas during Hanukkah, latkes are eaten with apple compote and/or sour cream.
For my French compatriots, sour cream is nothing but creme fraiche that is fermented with certain bacterias to produce lactic acid. It is frequently used as an accompaniment to smoked fish on blinis, steamed potatoes with chives, or used in the preparation of some pastries such as scones and other cakes and cookies. I am including the sour cream recipe in case you cannot find any in your country.
Let me finish this post with a “Gitte Yantev and Es gezunterheyt!” No, I am not insulting you, I am just wishing you a happy holiday and bon appetit in Yiddish.
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 tablespoon buttermilk (or fermented milk)
- 5 apples
- ½ cup sugar
- ½ cup apple juice
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 3 whole cloves
- A handful of raisins (optional)
- 6 potatoes
- 1 large onion , grated
- 2 eggs
- 3 tablespoons matzo meal (or regular flour)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Pepper (to taste)
- Vegetable oil (for frying)
- Prepare the sour cream the day before, or ideally 2 days before.
- Heat the heavy cream in a double boiler until it reaches the temperature of 180 F.
- Allow the cream to cool to room temperature.
- Pour into a glass jar (that can close with a lid) and add the tablespoon of buttermilk or fermented milk. Stir.
- Cover the jar with a rather thick cloth or towel, so as not to seal and allow gas to escape.
- Store at room temperature for 24 to 48 hours.
- Then, close the jar tightly with its lid and refrigerate.
- Sour cream will keep 2 to 3 weeks in the fridge.
- Peel, core and cut the apples into quarters. Place them in a saucepan with the sugar, spices and apple juice.
- Simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Poke the apples to ensure that they are soft and stop cooking. Remove the cloves.
- Crush with a fork for a chunky apple sauce or mix in blender for a smooth one. Add raisins (optional). Cool.
- Peel, wash and dry the potatoes.
- Grate them and press them through a fine sieve or fine cheesecloth to get rid of most of the moisture.
- Then add all other ingredients and mix well to obtain a homogeneous consistency.
- Heat the cooking oil in a pan. Shape shredded potato pancakes and place them gently into the frying oil with a slotted spoon.
- Cook over medium heat about 10 minutes, turning halfway through cooking so they are golden brown.
- Place the latkes on paper towel and serve immediately.