There's nothing not to like about a latke. Any self-respecting french fry or potato chip will tell you that potatoes + fat = fjmvklwiurhefhohguis (that's the sound of someone gobbling up an entire plate of french fries). What's a latke? A latke is a potato pancake eaten during the celebration of Hanukkah, which begins on December 24 this year. More precisely, it's grated potato and onion bound with egg and matzo meal and simply seasoned with salt and pepper. The batter is shaped into little hockey pucks and fried in plenty of oil until irresistibly bronzed and crispy. The best latkes have wild, unkempt edges, a tangled nest of crisped potato ribbons that contrast with the soft, warm center. A proper latke is topped with dollops of sour cream and applesauce. What's that you say? You want to dip yours in ketchup? No. No no no no no. These are not hash browns, and I will not stand by and watch you treat them as such. Latkes are more than a greasy-spoon side dish. They have symbolism—they have a story.
We Jews love culinary symbolism. On Passover, we eat parsley dipped in salt water to represent the tears the Jews cried when we were slaves in Egypt. On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, we eat apples dipped in honey to encourage a sweet year. A Cheeto eaten on the Saturday morning Sabbath represents the mighty staff of Moses. Okay, it doesn't. But wouldn't that be cute? During Hanukkah, we eat deep-fried foods: latkes and jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot.
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More than 2,000 years ago, a Syrian king insisted the Jews abandon their singular god in favor of worshiping a gaggle of Greek gods. The Jews fought back and won. And while restoring the Temple of Jerusalem, they thought they had only enough oil to light the lamp for one night. Instead, the oil burned for eight days. This was a miracle! So we celebrate eight days of Hanukkah by frying things in oil, since we also prefer symbolism to clog our arteries.
Now, I adore latkes. But I also want to punch them in the face. Every year, I throw a big Hanukkah party and I make batch after batch of freshly fried latkes for all my main goys and shiksas. Because they are most delicious served straight from a sizzling pan, I remain stuck to the stove while my friends are free to hang out. I call this latke prison. And I despise latke prison!
I needed a way out. When I asked my mom if I could make the latkes in advance and just warm them up in the oven when my guests arrived, she looked at me like I had just dipped my latke in ketchup. The answer was a clear no.
But I knew there had to be an escape, a twisted bedsheet I could climb down to free me from this deep-fried nightmare. So I consulted with two latke experts.
First, I spoke with Jonny Silverberg, the chef/owner of Napkin Friends, a Seattle food truck serving sandwiches smooshed between two latkes instead of bread.
"I'm a nice Jewish boy," Silverberg said on the phone, before we found out we went to the same Northern California Jewish summer camp decades ago. He assured me that bringing premade latkes back to life is a breeze.
"We actually make them all ahead of time," Silverberg told me. "If we had to make a fresh order every time, we wouldn't be in business, because it's just not fast enough. Obviously they're better when they're fresh out of the pan. But if they're stored properly in a sealed container, our latkes hold up and recrisp well up to four days."
On the truck, the latkes are reheated on a cast-iron panini press, which crisps up both sides and squeezes out excess oil. Napkin Friends also sells large batches to go for Hanukkah parties.
"The reheating instructions we give people is this: Get the latkes on a sheet pan, heat at 350 degrees, then transfer them to paper towels to soak up a little of the extra grease," Silverberg explained. "It works fine."
For my annual Hanukkah party, fine is not going to cut it. If I'm going to eat latkes only once a year, they must be absolutely incredible.
I went to Seattle chef and cookbook author Becky Selengut, who grew up eating latkes in her grandmother's East Coast kitchen. She invited me to her home where we, along with a few more judges, tested four reheating methods and made many latke puns. (I'm now certain Led Zeppelin was actually singing "Whole latke love!") This was fantastically fun and educational, and I highly recommend creating your own test kitchen for any dish you obsess over.
Here is how the methods ranked, from best to worst:
1. Freeze freshly made latkes. When ready to serve, refry in hot oil for about a minute and a half on each side. These were fantastic and tasted every bit as good as freshly made latkes. Fat = flavor.
2. Fry latkes a bit earlier in the day and let them sit on the counter at room temperature. When ready to serve, refry for 30 seconds on each side. These were also just as good as fresh, and you have to spend only a minute frying each batch when guests arrive, as opposed to the original 10.
3. Slide premade, room temperature latkes into a 500 degree oven and heat for two or three minutes. These came out just a touch dry, but the flavor was good. Sour cream and applesauce helped them recover. Not quite as good as the double-fried method, but a small price to pay for the convenience of reheating a large batch at once.
4. Freeze freshly made latkes. Reheat at 425 degrees for 15 minutes. This was the worst method. The center of the latke was dry and mealy, and the coveted crispy, lacy surface flattened out. These were universally disliked.
Whatever your method, make sure you peel your potatoes first. In a test batch, the mere addition of potato skin altered the flavor so significantly, they tasted more like hash browns and lacked the necessarily nostalgic taste of traditional latkes.
If making your own latkes is simply not going to happen, there are a couple of local spots where you can eat them. Fremont's Roxy's Diner and CJ's Eatery in Belltown are perhaps the only restaurants in the city serving Jewish classics like matzo ball soup, smoked fish and bagels, and pastrami sandwiches on rye.
Unfortunately, Roxy's latkes, served with sour cream and applesauce, were bland, dry, and lacked crunch. Thanks to the previous night's taste test, I was certain they were made in advance and reheated on the grill. A call to the restaurant confirmed this.
CJ's were better. Their latkes are large and flat, very tender, perfectly salty and full of oniony flavor. But the texture was lacking. While crisp around the edges, most of the latke was soft, and they seemed sautéed rather than fried.
Through these dining experiences, I realized that latkes do not belong in a diner. Latkes require a certain atmosphere, an experience, an essence of Hanukkah. They're meant to be eaten in a cozy home, standing around the kitchen with friends and family, in the glow of a menorah, fried up by some poor woman banished to latke prison.