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.
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.
- 3 ounces cream cheese
- 3 eggs
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 cups ricotta cheese
- Unsalted butter or vegetable oil, for frying
- For serving: cinnamon sugar, jam, sour cream, or maple syrup