Ode: My Own Latkes at Home
“It smells like Hanukkah in here.”
You know someone’s been making latkes when you walk in the front door because the whole house smells like hot oil. And if you made the mistake of leaving your winter coat out in the front entryway, you’ll be smelling the holiday for weeks, a gentle waft of fried food every time you wipe your nose on your sleeve. In our house, we close the bedroom doors and move as much as we can to the coat closet so that Hanukkah doesn’t follow us too far beyond the eighth night.
I can still remember the golden moments when my mother would visit my school to cook latkes in an electric skillet, every parent knowing by the smell of their children’s clothes and hair that the Jewish kid’s mom had shared the goodness that day.
We all have our own preferences when it comes to cooking latkes, but let’s just put it out here at the beginning: My way is the best way.
Sure, the more of a mashed potato pancake version can be delicious, with its cakey insides all hot and creamy. And, yeah, you can get tasty giants at places like Zaidy’s, but you're never sure the middles will be cooked all the way through.
But my little birds’ nests of joy — made with course potato and onion shreds and replete with crispy edges and a crunch that goes almost all the way to the middle — are the superior latke variation.
A friend recently reached out for my recipe and had to decline. Not because I’m being protective — I’d be happy to share a recipe if I had one. But I’ve been using my mom’s formula for decades, passed lovingly to me over the phone one night when I wanted to cook for friends in college.
It goes something like this:
Grate enough potatoes
Grate the right amount of onions
Squeeze the water out
Add an egg or two or three, depending
Sprinkle in a little flour or matzoh meal to help hold it together
Stir in salt and pepper
Use a slotted spoon to place dollops of the mixture into hot oil
Fry and flip and drain and drop onto a cookie sheet strewn with paper towels
Keep warm in the oven until you have a batch to put out
It’s all about the feel for me by now, from the potato-to-onion ratio to how many eggs are needed. The frying is the most delicate part, especially if you’re cooking up an enormous batch, because keeping the oil at the perfect temperature is a dance of danger with the cold potatoes going in and sizzling circles of cheer coming out.
At my annual latke extravaganza, I stand at the stove for hours and hours, serving up fresh batches as new guests arrive. I’m lucky to have good friends to keep me plied with tequila shots and cocktails while I cook away, occasionally swiping a hunka hunka burning love for myself between rounds.
Some say the real Hanukkah debate is whether to eat latkes with sour cream or apple sauce. Always a peacemaker over here, I devour them with a blob of each on top — an extra sprinkle of salt just before eating them. I don’t use a fork, either. I pile them into my mouth tostada-style, taking happy bites until I can pop the last perfect, crunchy morsel between my teeth.
And then it’s back to the hot stove, two or three pans gurgling away, ready for another batch of birds’ nests.
Happy Hanukkah, peeps.