Your Hanukkah Latke Isn't As Old School As You Think

December 14, 2016

Along with challah and matzo ball soup, potato latkes are among the most widely known Ashkenazi Jewish foods. And for good reason. When made well, Hanukkah’s grated potato fritters can be ambrosial—lacy and crisp along the edges with a tender, almost creamy bite inside. Served spitting-hot from the frying pan and topped with a cool dollop of applesauce or sour cream, potato latkes are the stuff of legends.

They are not, however, the original latke. That designation goes to kaese latkes, a delicate, lightly sweetened pancake made from soft curd cheese.

The word “latke” shows its roots—it has nothing to do with starchy tubers. Instead, it’s derived from elaion, the Greek word for olive oil, and is connected to the Hanukkah tradition of indulging in fried foods. Jewish communities across the globe have found innumerable foods to fry for the Festival of Lights, from the freeform Moroccan doughnuts called sfenj to Italian Jews’ frittelle di riso (pine nut and raisin-studded rice fritters).

According to Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, the first Hanukkah latkes, which were made with ricotta cheese, date back to 13th-century Italy, and began to spread outward during the 15th century. Southern and central European Jews took on the practice of celebrating Hanukkah with pancakes made from soft cheese like farmer’s cheese or pot cheese, gilding the lily by serving them with a generous spoonful of sour cream on top. In northeastern Europe, the winter months were long and cold, and fresh cheeses—as well as the butter typically used to fry the pancakes—were both in short supply. These Jewish cooks made their latkes with a rye or buckwheat flour batter, “akin to blini, but without the caviar,” Marks writes, and used the widely available schmaltz, rendered goose or chicken fat, to fry them.

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The rise and eventual triumph of the potato latke over all other Hanukkah latkes happened relatively recently. The potato, after all, is a New World vegetable that wasn’t widely adopted within Europe until the 19th century. Once they caught on, however, they quickly became central to Ashkenazi cuisine. And when European Jews immigrated to America en masse between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, it was the potato latke that came with them. Today, although curd cheese pancakes are still eaten across the former Soviet Union, you would be hard-pressed to find an American Jewish family serving them on Hanukkah.

Instead, potato latkes remain the dominant Hanukkah fritter. Some cooks play with the theme by swapping in grated sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, or other root vegetables for regular spuds. Every year, I look forward to this starchy fry fest. But I think there are compelling reasons to bring cheese latkes back to the Hanukkah table. The pancakes, which fall directly between ultra-thin crepes and puffed, buttermilk flapjacks, are tender and light. Dip them in cinnamon-sugar or dollop them with jam and sour cream and toast to Hanukkah traditions old and new.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Jennie Polyblank
    Jennie Polyblank
  • Kathleen
  • amysarah
  • hugo rivera
    hugo rivera
  • Wendy
Leah is the author of Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes & Customs for Today's Kitchen (Chronicle, 2015)


Jennie P. December 30, 2016
I am searching for a recipe that my mother made of Almond Latkes? Matzo meal, ground almonds and eggs and water but no idea of quantities. Anyone ever heard of them please?
Kathleen December 19, 2016
Where can I buy the small glass with pouring lip shown in the photo?
amysarah December 17, 2016
This looks SO good - I may switch up the potato latkes I usually make for Chanumas (lunch this year) and do these instead. Potato latkes can be made ahead and kept warm or re-heated in the oven...any idea if these hold up that way?

Also, these seem like a cousin - once removed - of blintzes, i.e., another kind of 'pancake' with pot/ricotta cheese. I also once broke fast at a friend's house, of Italian Jewish descent, who served delicious Crespelle stuffed with ricotta - another blintz/pancake cousin...but I don't know if that was just his family's tradition or a broader Italian Jewish one. This looks a lot easier!
Leah K. December 17, 2016
Hey amysarah - the cheese latkes are essentially a ricotta-enriched pancake. So like other pancakes, they can be made a day ahead and reheated in a warm oven (or even the microwave). They are definitely a cousin of blintzes and any other pancake. :)
hugo R. December 17, 2016
... Potatoes original are from Peru in South America ...
Wendy December 17, 2016
The article mentions that the Russian latke was made with buckwheat (or rye) flour. Could buckwheat flour be substituted in this recipe to make it gluten free?
Leah K. December 17, 2016
I didn't test it with buckwheat flour, so I can't say for sure. Buckwheat also has a different flavor than wheat flour, of course. But I definitely encourage you to try subbing out the wheat flour for buckwheat and let us know how it goes!
sydney December 17, 2016
I modified (omitted cream cheese, used buckwheat flour, reduced sugar and salt) and don't have a food processor. Was a gluey batter but very flavourful. The buckwheat flour, which we're all using for non-gluten diets, is likely what the shetl moms used, making it truly Chanukah 'old school'! I'll make it again and continue to modify. Love ricotta-buckwheat combo.
sydney December 17, 2016
whoops, typo: shtetl
marc.lyons.one December 16, 2016
I love the feature here of cheese latkes but remain curious. Can I keep them savory? I'd prefer less or no sugar added. Any historical accuracy serving a savory cheese latke rather than these that are sweetened? Please note that I'm not turned off by the sweet, only trying to expand my repertoire with a savory variation as well.
Leah K. December 16, 2016
Thanks! I didn't try making them savory, but I bet you could. I would suggest reducing the sugar to 1 tablespoon and then stirring in some thinly sliced scallions and/or a little crumbled feta along with the ricotta. If you try it, let me know how it turns out!
Reva December 17, 2016
Or, perhaps, for savory, to add diced, or chopped regular onions, & diced carrots, and/or sliced/diced mushrooms, instead of green onions,. The green onions, or scallions, would make me think of a "scallion pancake", which is why I'd suggest Vidalia, or yellow onions, carrots,, & mushrooms for savory. Just thinking out loud, so-to-speak, here. Personally, for Hanukkah, I prefer the potato pancakes with apple sauce. I'm curious to try w/ricotta cheese. I love ricotta cheese. It's all good! :)
Leah K. December 17, 2016
Nice ideas. :)