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Sweet potato fritters with clove-scented syrup

Time 2 hours
Yields Serves 6
Sweet potato fritters with clove-scented syrup
(Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles Times)
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It wouldn’t be Hanukkah without papas a la huancaina and causa limena

Peru may be one of the last places people associate with Hanukkah, but when we visited that country a few months ago, the potato lovers’ holiday was very much on our minds. After all, potatoes originated in that part of the world, and more than 4,000 varieties of spuds grow there. With their long experience using the tubers, cooks in Peru have developed delicious potato dishes that happen to be perfect for Hanukkah.

One of the dishes we enjoyed most in Peru was papas a la huancaína, boiled potatoes coated with a creamy sauce made of queso fresco and yellow chiles. When we tasted it, we imagined that the sauce would go well with potato pancakes, and so when we returned home we made latkes a la huancaína.

Another potato appetizer we loved was causa limeña, which we first ate at La Mar Cebichería in Lima, where it was made of patties of mashed yellow potatoes topped with lime-flavored chicken salad and a colorful garnish of avocado, tomato and hard-boiled egg. Causas in different varieties were everywhere, from casual eateries in market halls to delis of supermarkets to elegant restaurants.

They come as patties served with all kinds of toppings and fillings. Often the potato mixture was layered with the filling in a loaf pan and sliced like a terrine. Sometimes it was spread with the filling and rolled up, and occasionally it was shaped in rounds and sandwiched with the filling using individual pastry rings.

Both causa and huancaína sauces are flavored with ají amarillo, which means “yellow chile,” although usually this finger-shaped chile is actually orange. These peppers are sweet, with mild to medium heat. At Los Angeles markets that carry Latin American foods, the peppers can be found frozen whole, in jars as pepper paste or in brine, and as dried chiles labeled “ají mirasol.”

In using these chiles, we found that the degree of heat varies from one pepper to another. Ricardo Zarate, chef-owner of several Peruvian restaurants in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, has a useful tip for getting around this. He removes the seeds and membranes and purées it with a little good olive oil so you can add it to taste. Prepared this way, it will keep in a jar in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks.

When we came across a street vendor in Lima skillfully forming and frying picarones, ring-shaped fritters made with sweet potatoes, we decided to make a similar sweet treat for Hanukkah. To make simpler sweet potato fritters, we used a French technique: We mixed sweet potato purée with choux pastry, the quick dough used for making cream puffs. With our fritters, we serve the same clove-scented piloncillo (cone sugar) syrup that is drizzled over picarones.

Somehow our fritters turned out resembling the fried spherical pastries called buñuelos, which Sephardim in several countries serve during Hanukkah.

Levy is the author of “1,000 Jewish Recipes” and “Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.”

Clove-scented Piloncillo syrup

1

In a small saucepan, combine the whole piloncillo with the water, cinnamon stick, cloves, lime zest and orange zest. Cover and cook over medium heat, turning and tapping the piloncillo occasionally with a wooden spoon, until the mixture comes to a boil, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and continue to cook, covered, until the piloncillo dissolves, about 6 minutes.

2

Uncover and continue cooking until the syrup is thick enough to lightly coat a spoon, an additional 10 minutes. Leave the spices and citrus zests in the syrup. This makes about 1 cup syrup, which will keep up to 2 weeks, covered and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before serving, straining if desired.

1

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Put the sweet potatoes in a roasting pan in which they fit in one layer, rub them with vegetable oil, and roast them until they feel soft when squeezed and can easily be pierced with a fork, 45 minutes to an hour (timing will depend on the size of the potatoes). Rotate the potatoes occasionally for even roasting. Set aside until they are just cool enough to handle.

2

Peel the sweet potatoes while they are still warm, then cut them into large chunks and mash them to a smooth purée (you will need 2¼ cups purée; any extra can be saved for another use).

3

Put the mashed sweet potatoes in a small saucepan. Cut 2 tablespoons of the butter into 4 pieces and add to the pan. Stir in the milk, one-fourth teaspoon salt, 2 teaspoons sugar and the cinnamon. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until the milk and butter are absorbed, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.

4

Make choux pastry: Cut the remaining butter into 4 pieces and put them in a small saucepan. Add the water and the remaining salt. Heat over low heat until the butter melts, then increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, immediately add the flour all at once, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth. Set the pan over low heat and beat the mixture for about 30 seconds, then remove from heat and set aside to cool for 5 minutes. Add 1 egg and beat it quickly and thoroughly into the mixture; it will look separated at first, but keep beating until the egg is completely incorporated and the mixture is smooth. Then beat in the second egg. Transfer the dough to a bowl.

5

Add the sweet potato purée in three portions to the dough, beating after each addition until the mixture is smooth and thoroughly blended. Line trays or plates with paper towels.

6

Fill a wide, heavy pot with oil to a depth of about 4 inches, and heat the oil until it reaches about 350 degrees. If a thermometer is not available, test by putting a scant teaspoon of sweet potato mixture into the oil; when the oil is hot enough, it should bubble vigorously around the batter.

7

Take a small, mounded spoonful of batter and use a second spoon to slide it gently into the oil, forming a rounded fritter. Do not crowd the pan because the fritters need room to puff. Fry the fritters over medium to medium-high heat until they are deep golden brown on all sides and set in the center, about 3 minutes (timing will vary depending on the size of the fritters and the temperature of the batter and oil). While frying, turn the fritters over if needed. If the fritters darken too quickly before they are completely set, reduce the temperature of the oil. The cooked fritters will be crisp but very tender.

8

Transfer the fritters to the paper towel-lined trays. Serve the fritters while they are still warm, drizzled with syrup. Serve the remaining syrup separately.

Piloncillo, or unrefined sugar pressed into cone shapes, is available at Latin American and international markets. Leftover syrup is good used the same ways as maple syrup or honey — drizzled over pancakes, yogurt, ricotta cheese or oatmeal, for example. When deep frying, never leave the pan unattended. If the oil starts to bubble up and gets close to the top of the pan, reduce the heat immediately.