The little pancake with a big history

"What makes a potato pancake a latke?" my younger daughter asked me last week, just before the eight-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which begins this year on Sunday evening (all Jewish holidays begin at sundown the day before). A latke, I explained to her, is not just a pancake made from potatoes, it's a potato pancake with a poor man's pedigree, a history, a tradition and a neshamah, a soul.

A lot to expect from a little pancake? Perhaps. But just as the menorah (originally an oil lamp) plays an integral part in the religious practice of the holiday, so does the potato latke, for most Ashkenazi Jews, play a starring role in the holiday's culinary tradition.

But potato latkes weren't originally a part of Hanukkah cuisine.

The holiday's roots date back to 168 BC, when the Syrian-Greek King Antiochus captured Israel, plundering and defiling the holiest site of the Jewish people, the Temple in Jerusalem. On the outskirts of Jerusalem, guerrilla warriors led by the priest Mattathias and his five sons vowed never to submit. They called themselves the Maccabees -- derived from an acrostic of the Hebrew "Mi Kamocha B'Elim Adonai" (Who among the mighty is like you, God?) -- and indeed, they were victorious, liberating Jerusalem three years later.

Once the battle was over, the Maccabees rid the temple of idols and lighted the golden menorah with a little purified olive oil they found, apparently enough to burn for just one day. But then, according to tradition, a miracle happened: The oil lasted for eight days -- exactly the time it took to press fresh oil. It is to commemorate the Miracle of the Oil that Jews all over the world eat foods fried in oil on Hanukkah.

Over the centuries, those who wanted to observe the tradition developed recipes using ingredients available in the countries in which they lived. Jews who settled in the Middle East or around the Mediterranean use fresh-pressed olive oil to fry their holiday foods, because Hanukkah falls at the end of the olive-pressing season, just as it did in the days of the Maccabees. Italian and Moroccan Jews serve such dishes as chicken fried in olive oil, and Greek, North African and Turkish Jews make different kinds of olive oil-fried puffs of dough for dessert.

The word latke derives from Yiddish, the Jewish language spoken by East European Jews. For Jewish villagers living in Russia or Poland, pickings were slim in winter, and potatoes were cheap and available from the root cellar. Grating and making potatoes into little patties to be fried, millions of Jewish mothers provided sustenance to their hungry children with just a few potatoes and very little fuel.

From what my mother tells me, my great-grandmother didn't even use olive oil to fry her latkes, because there weren't any olives to press in Eastern Europe. Instead, she used schmaltz, fat rendered from a chicken, duck or goose, which are also traditional dishes served during the holiday week.

Interestingly enough, though, when I researched the word "latke," I found that some sources claim it derives from the Old Russian oladka, and is a diminutive of olad'ya, from Greek eladia, the plural of eladion, which means "a little oily thing" and comes from elaia, which means "olive."

There is no single correct latke. Some like their latkes made with coarsely grated potatoes, others with finely grated ones. For binding, some prefer flour and others matzo meal. Purists like their latkes to be all potatoes, often with a pinch of onion, while the more daring might add grated carrots or other vegetables such as Jerusalem artichokes.

In fact, nowhere does it say that you can't forgo the potatoes altogether and make your latkes out of zucchini, beets, carrots or other vegetables. Because when all is said and done, it is not the potato per se that should take center stage on Hanukkah. What facilitated the Miracle of the Oil was not the pancake but the little olive, whose oil played an integral part in various ceremonies in the Temple, including anointing royal personages. Indeed, the word "Messiah" is derived from the Hebrew word Mashiach -- "anointed one."

In biblical times, pure olive oil also enjoyed widespread use as a remedy for wounds, sores, chills and aching throats, ears and muscles. Long before we knew that it contained healthful monounsaturated oils and helped lower cholesterol, olive oil softened the cracked hands of the shepherd and the shoemaker, protected the tender skin of babes and relieved the tired traveler -- and, no doubt, the Maccabees as well.

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Classic potato latkes

Total time: 50 minutes

Servings: 8 to 12 (makes 2 to 2 1/2 dozen latkes)

Note: Adapted from "The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking" by Phyllis Glazer

with Miriyam Glazer.

2 pounds boiling potatoes, peeled

2 large onions (1 pound), halved crosswise

4 eggs, beaten

2 teaspoons salt

1 cup matzo meal

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 cup vegetable or olive oil, or a blend of the two, divided

1. Grate the potatoes on the medium or fine side of a grater and place in a fine wire-mesh strainer suspended over a bowl. Grate the onion on the medium side of the grater and place in a separate strainer. Let both stand 10 minutes to drain. Press down gently to extract as much moisture as possible.

2. Transfer the potatoes to a bowl, add the grated onion, beaten eggs and seasonings, and mix well. Fold in the matzo meal. Let stand for 10 minutes, while heating one-fourth cup oil in a medium skillet over medium heat.

3. Scoop up one heaping tablespoon of the mixture and place it in the hot oil. Press down gently with the back of a spoon to flatten and form the latke. Repeat to form 4 to 5 latkes, depending on the size of pan, leaving space between them to facilitate turning.

4. Fry on medium heat until golden, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer the latkes to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Repeat until all of the latkes are cooked, adding additional oil as necessary for frying. Serve warm.

Each of 12 servings: 225 calories; 5 grams protein; 27 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 11 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 71 mg. cholesterol; 416 mg. sodium.

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Fresh beet latkes with cumin and coriander

Total time: 45 minutes

Servings: 6 (about 12 latkes)

Note: Serve the latkes with sour cream or rich yogurt and snipped chives for garnish.

3 pounds beets

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander seed

1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley or cilantro

2 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon baking powder

4 eggs, lightly beaten

1/2 cup flour

1/2 to 3/4 cup olive oil, for frying

1. Rinse, trim and peel beets, and then shred them on the coarse side of a grater to yield about 8 cups. Place the beets in a strainer or colander set over a bowl, and let stand 10 minutes to drain. Press the beets with a towel to remove any excess moisture, then place in a medium bowl.

2. Stir the cumin, coriander, parsley (or cilantro), salt, black pepper and baking powder into the beets, using a wooden spoon. Stir in the eggs, then the flour, and mix well to combine.

3. In a large frying pan, heat 5 to 6 tablespoons oil over medium heat until hot. For each latke, drop one-third cup of the beet mixture into the pan, flattening slightly with a spoon. Fry 4 to 5 latkes at a time, about 4 to 5 minutes on each side until deep red throughout and just lightly browned on the outside. Transfer the latkes to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Repeat until all of the latkes are cooked, adding additional oil as necessary for frying. Serve warm.

Each of 6 servings: 318 calories; 8 grams protein; 24 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams fiber; 22 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 142 mg. cholesterol; 1,026 mg. sodium.

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Olive latkes

Total time: 25 minutes

Servings: 8 (about 16 latkes)

Note: This is an unusual latke that truly celebrates the olive.

3/4 cup olive oil, divided

2 cups chopped onion

1/4 cup chopped garlic

2 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons cumin

4 eggs, beaten

4 cups finely chopped pitted green or black brined olives, thoroughly drained

2 to 4 tablespoons water (optional)

1. In a medium saute pan, heat one-fourth cup of oil and saute the onion and garlic till golden, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly.

2. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cumin. Beat in the eggs and onion and garlic mixture with a fork. Stir in the olives and add water, as needed, if the mixture seems too thick.

3. Heat one-fourth cup of the remaining oil in the pan and use a small cup or soup ladle to form 3 to 4 latkes. Fry on both sides till golden. Repeat until all the batter is used, adding additional oil as needed for frying. Transfer the latkes to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Serve with thick yogurt or sour cream.

Each of 8 servings: 432 calories; 8 grams protein; 34 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 30 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 104 mg. cholesterol; 1,506 mg. sodium.

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Mini ricotta latkes with sour cherry sauce

Total time: 35 minutes

Servings: 6 (12 to 14 latkes)

Note: Adapted from "The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking" by Phyllis Glazer with Miriyam Glazer. The fastest latke ever, these are light and delicious for dessert, as a snack or as part of a "latke party." These latkes come out flat; add the baking powder if you want a slightly fluffier pancake. Sweet cherries in syrup may also be used, but sour cherries add a slight tartness that complements the other flavors.

Sour cherry sauce

1 cup drained canned or bottled sour cherries in syrup

1 cup syrup from can or bottle of sour cherries

1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

3 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon cherry liqueur

1. In a small saucepan, mix cherries and syrup and heat over medium-low heat. In a small bowl, mix the cornstarch and water to form a slurry. Add the slurry to the saucepan and stir to combine. Continue to heat, stirring, until the mixture thickens slightly to a sauce-like consistency, 10 to 12 minutes.

2. Stir in the cherry liqueur, remove from heat, then cover and keep warm while preparing the latkes. (May be prepared in advance and reheated.)

Latkes and assembly

1 pound whole or part-skim milk ricotta cheese

4 eggs

6 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour (half whole wheat pastry flour if desired)

1/2 teaspoon baking powder (optional)

1 tablespoon walnut oil

2 tablespoons sugar or turbinado sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Oil for frying

Sour cherry sauce

1. In a blender or food processor, combine the cheese, eggs, flour, optional baking powder, oil, sugar and vanilla. Process until smooth.

2. Heat a small amount of oil in a frying pan and drop two tablespoons of the mixture each time to form a mini latke. Cook briefly on one side till lightly browned on the bottom, then flip and cook the other side for less than a minute. Transfer the latkes to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Repeat until all of the latkes are cooked, adding additional oil as necessary for frying.

3. Serve the latkes warm with the sauce.

Each of 6 servings: 444 calories; 14 grams protein; 32 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 30 grams fat; 9 grams saturated fat; 180 mg. cholesterol; 117 mg. sodium.

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