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How to make the perfect latke

Posted: December 8, 2013 - 1:02am
Perfect potato latkes a la Geoff Kirsch  GEOFF KIRSCH
GEOFF KIRSCH
Perfect potato latkes a la Geoff Kirsch

Because making the perfect “latke” — or potato pancake — is kind of a pain, the first step is buying instant latke mix.

But you live in Alaska now, not New York City. You can’t find instant latke mix.

So, not only will you make latkes the hard way, you’re cooking for 30, because Juneau’s a small town and once you invite one person you’re compelled to extend it to everyone else you know, lest they find out about it later and feel slighted.

Also, there’s something satisfying about feeding a crowd, particularly with a dish even more quintessentially Jewish than Chinese food on Christmas Day.

But that’s a different recipe. Today, it’s latkes.

Upping the difficulty: two young children who insist upon helping, mostly by attacking each other with kitchen implements. But you “cook” with them often. You’re ready for their “help” provided you stay alert. Just as you’d never turn your back on the sea, don’t take your eyes off a three-year-old sous chef.

To begin, you need potatoes. Your recipe, a variation of your grandmother’s, calls for five large Russets; you’ll use Yukon Gold, partly in homage to the Great Northwest but also, no peeling. Remember what happened last week making perfect Thanksgiving mashed potatoes? No need to relive that debacle.

Grandmom’s recipe yields 25 latkes. You will quadruple then halve it, one portion for each child. Warning: do the math in advance. Your version calls for several bottles of beer, not for the batter, but for you. Numbers can get tricky later.

Speaking of which, defrost a hunk of salmon, in case of epic failure. Be thankful you live in Alaska, where a 10-minute replacement meal can be grilled wild sockeye with maple-butter glaze. Lower 48, it’d be boiled hot dogs on freezer-burned buns.

Grate potatoes and onions (using a 5:1 ratio, in this case 20 potatoes and eight onions, preferably Vidalia). Unless you’ve recently stocked up on Band-Aids at Costco, do not hand grate. Just break out the Cuisinart you got as a wedding gift and use only once a year. Let this be that once.

While food processing, alternate which child hits the button and which pushes the plunger. This is possibly the most important step, aside from establishing two separate workstations with identical (non-breakable) mixing bowls and wooden spoons. Failure to follow these steps might still yield perfect latkes, but will likely turn a pleasant holiday activity into permanent emotional scarring. And who needs that on Hanukkah?

Speaking of which, if you haven’t already, go ahead and open that beer. Turn on some music. Not Hanukkah music, not even kids music, but music you actually like, something cheerful, like the Beatles or Bob Marley. Or Metallica, or Miley Cyrus, or Yo-Yo Ma or Dub-Step. Whatever puts you in a good mood. No Radiohead.

Next, place shredded potato-onion mixture into two kitchen towels, one per child. Warning: double check towel color/design preference! Wring out excess liquid by twisting from one end of the towel, your children the other. Loosen contents and wring again, this time by yourself. Seriously, the more moisture you squeeze out, the crispier the latkes. This requires thorough, adult handiwork. Create a diversion by giving kids cheese sticks.

Need more time? Open a package of dried seaweed. Personally, you can’t stand the stuff, but your kids claim eating it makes them feel like dinosaurs and you can’t argue with that (even though it smells like dead fish and crumbles into a zillion shards that turn to dust when you try to pick them up).

At this point, your wife will text, forcing you to touch your iPhone with sticky, starchy, oniony, seaweed-encrusted fingers. She’s adding another family, sideways smiley-face. That’s cool; you’ve anticipated this. A hundred latkes is a whole mess of latkes—although you will run out of applesauce. You always run out of applesauce. Fear not! Latkes also go well with ketchup, mustard, honey mustard, ranch dressing, maple syrup and/or Sriracha-mayo. Any condiment, really. They’re excellent calorie shovels.

Set aside potato-onion mixture and ask if anyone needs to go potty.

After pee break (hopefully just pee) — and supervised hand-washing — into each mixing bowl, crack six eggs; 12 total (three from the original, quadrupled but again, split equally between two children—understand why you do the math beforehand?).

Purell on stand-by, combine eggs with: (ideally) matzoh meal (but good luck finding that locally) or (more likely) crushed-up saltines (1/2 cup per bowl; 1 cup total) and baking powder (1 heaping tablespoon per bowl; 2 total).

Open second beer.

Stir in salt and pepper to taste. Grandmom has high blood pressure; seasonings are way off in all her recipes. She also experiences chronic acid reflux — add chopped garlic, too, if you like.

Blend potato mixture with egg mixture, stirring until coated. Batter should be moist but not soupy. If needed, thicken with more potato or substitute shredded carrots. Why not sneak in legit veggies? Sure, you’re also serving salad, but your kids won’t eat salad. Oh, they’ll ask for it. They’ll even compel you to fetch extra dressing, feta and Craisins. But they won’t eat it. Salad? In front of other kids? Never.

Preheat oven to 325. Reach into the chaos of pots, pans, crockery and Tupperware you call your cabinet until you find two large dishes, one of which won’t melt in the oven. Line one with paper towel. Don’t put that one in the oven.

With children manning the timer at a safe remove, in two skillets heat 1/8-inch vegetable oil until hot, but not smoking (toss in a potato shred; when the edges sizzle, oil’s ready). Traditionally, you’d fry latkes in rendered chicken fat, aka “schmaltz.” But that’s a mail-order item for sure, and you’re not about to overnight a brick of schmaltz from Brooklyn. Sounds way too much like the set-up to an Anti-Semitic joke. Plus, half your friends are vegetarian, anyway.

While the oil heats, tell your kids about Hanukkah: the Festival of Lights and how the holiday celebrates a small band of ancient Hebrews who, after defeating the Syrian-Greek army and liberating Jerusalem, rededicated the Holy Temple — of which the Western Wall still stands — by lighting one day’s worth of oil that miraculously lasted eight, until more arrived from neighboring trade partners. Tell them this explains the ceremonial eight-candled Hanukkah menorah and the customary eating of fried foods. It’s also the first documented warning about over-reliance on foreign oil.

Open third beer.

Working in batches, drop spoonfuls of batter into hot oil, flattening with spatula. Cook until golden brown, approximately two minutes on each side.

By this point, mom should be home from work. She and guests will handle clean up; that’s the unspoken social contract.

Transfer latkes to paper towel-lined dish to drain, then into oven while frying the remainder. Change your clothes and shower when finished, as you will reek like a KFC dumpster. Later, after the kids go to sleep, this will make it tough to cash-in with your wife for facilitating such a tasty impromptu Hanukkah party.

Serve latkes warm with applesauce, sour cream or whatever favorite condiment — melted cheddar? — deservedly self-content for overcoming your usual laziness. Realistically, nothing competes with American Christmas. Not even the Super Bowl. But tonight, you’ve created a meaningful cultural experience for your family and friends while simultaneously making your kids feel a little less bad about not having a tree.

Also, you gave them new bikes. That helps, too.

• Slack Tide appears every second and fourth Sunday in Neighbors. See Geoff Kirsch read a different original holiday-themed piece as part of KTOO’s Writers’ Showcase, Dec. 12 at 7 pm.

Geoff’s Perfect Potato Latkes

Ingredients:

5 Yukon Gold potatoes

1 medium onion, preferably Vidalia

3 eggs

¼ cup matzoh meal or crushed-up saltines

½ tablespoon baking powder

Salt and pepper to taste

Applesauce

Sour Cream

3-4 Bottles of Beer

Yields 25 latkes.

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