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Growing up, I always took Hanukkah latkes for granted. We ate them every Hanukkah and I never realized how lucky I was to have my mother’s every year—they were delicious; crispy on the outside, with a creamy potato center. My mother had a big electric skillet that she used for frying large batches, which was always taken out of the back of the cupboard and plugged in for such special occasions. She'd place the skillet on the island in the middle of our kitchen, and I would stand next to the counter to help, watching each batch of latkes carefully as they browned. We ate them the super-traditional, quintessential way, with applesauce and sour cream—the same way my Ashkenazi family ate them in Poland and Russia before they came to the US.
In 2000, I met my husband: a Sephardic Jew whose mother was a Greek immigrant. The ongoing joke was that if we were to be married, two avid food-lovers who were passionate about our family’s heirloom recipes, our kitchen would bring a hodgepodge of different dishes passed down from both of our lineages—the foods of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews are very dissimilar. Although I have not found these differences to be so significant, it is true that the foods we grew up on were very different.
Where Shabbat dinner at my own home would be centered on a roast chicken, my husband’s family ate sautéed fish, crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. Feta and olives were ever-present, and to my family, those ingredients were special foods from Greece as opposed to everyday staples. The differences in cuisine lent themselves to an ongoing joke, all in good fun, between my husband and I that boiled down to, “The food of my people versus the food of your people.” While I would joke about why my family’s roast chicken trumped a sautéed fish at Shabbat, I personally loved being part of two cultures whose foods were both equally delicious. Despite the banter, one dish remained a constant given—one that we both loved the same way—my mother’s latkes. I made them for many years during the beginning of our marriage. They were familiar and traditional for both of us.
Fast-forward several years ahead to one year that my husband and I decided to have a Hanukkah party, which we called Latkes and Vodka. I wanted to make latkes, but really wanted to make my own recipe this time, so I tested out varieties; crisp and thin, then pillowy and thick.
Finally, I found a winning combination: a balance of a crispy exterior with a slightly-dense potato interior. They quickly became my favorite, served with applesauce and sour cream (a nod to my mother) or drenched with the braising sauce from brisket. My mother passed away in 2012 and, although I now make a hybrid latke for Hanukkah, I still think of her when I make them. I always make too many latkes but, anyone who knows me well knows I have an ulterior motive: Leftover latkes with a fried egg for breakfast the next morning!
For the latkes:
- 3 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes
- 1 medium yellow onion
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 3 tablespoons matzo meal
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 to 3 eggs
- 3 cups olive oil
- Sour cream, to serve
For the pear sauce:
- 5 pears, peeled, cored and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 1/2 cups apple cider
- 6 tablespoons sugar
- Vanilla pod
- Nutmeg, to taste
- 1 orange, zest only
- Salt, to taste
Do you have any traditional holiday recipes you've adapted? What will you be making for Hanukkah this year?