Editor’s Note:  Beginning at sunset tonight, Dec. 11th, and continuing through Dec. 19th, the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights called Hanukkah is celebrated.  The Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem comes with its own food traditions.   Food Safety News marks the holiday by giving you a taste here.

latke.jpgLatkes, the fried potato pancakes traditionally served during the Jewish festival of Hanukkah are a touchy subject. Everyone has their favorite recipe; everyone has their favorite way of making them. Make them too thick, with the tender centers and crisp edges, and you offend those who like their latkes thin and lacy. Make them too thin and – well, you get it. 

Of course, the point of Hanukkah isn’t actually the latkes despite the evidence to the contrary. The point is the oil in which they’re fried. In Israel, jelly doughnuts are the holiday treat, underscoring again it’s the oil that sits at the center of the observance. So, what’s with this infatuation with oil?

Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem following the victory of the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid Empire in 166 B.C. (the Seleucid Empire was a remnant of the larger empire of the Alexander the Great). The Seleucid army had trashed the temple and when Jewish fighters under the command of Judah Maccabee moved to rededicate it, they found there was only enough consecrated oil to light the temple’s menorah for a single day.

Undeterred, they lit the lamp anyway but the small amount of oil continued to burn for eight days, long enough to press more olive oil to keep the lamp lit all the time, as commanded by religious law. The oil used for frying high-fat treats, then, is actually a reminder of this ancient event and a good excuse to blow off one’s diet for a little while. That, too, is the reason behind placing a lighted menorah – or candelabrum – in the window, a reminder to everyone of the miracle of the oil. This is also a good reason for non-Jews to cadge an invitation to a Hanukkah party. 

Traditionally, latkes are served with sour cream and/or apple sauce. Hanukkah begins Friday at sundown. Start cooking.

Rosemary Applesauce

4 cups apple, cored and chopped into about 1-inch die (Don’t bother to peel them unless you absolutely can’t stand apple peel)

3 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon honey

1 teaspoon rosemary, fresh, finely chopped

½ teaspoon salt

1 cup water

Combine all the ingredients in a medium sauce pan, bring water to a boil, and then reduce heat to medium.

Let fruit simmer, covered, for about 15 minutes or until tender. 

Using a food processor or immersion blender, puree the apples until they’re as smooth or as chunky as you like. Serve warm or chilled.

Potato Apple Latkes

2 medium to large Russet potatoes, peeled

1 medium yellow onion

2 apples (Choose a firm variety, such as Fuji or Braeburn) 

2 eggs, beaten

½ cup matzo meal

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 teaspoons salt, plus more salt for sprinkling over the latkes as they cook

Peanut or vegetable oil for shallow frying

Using a food processor or hand grater, grate the potato, onion, and apple together, letting the grated bits rest in a colander or strainer to drain off excess moisture. Then take hands full of the mixture, squeezing them as hard as you can to force out even more water. Transfer the dried mixture to a large mixing bowl.

Add the egg, matzo meal, and salt to the concoction and stir until thoroughly blended. 

Heat a heavy skillet – cast iron is great for this – and then add about a quarter cup of oil. While the oil heats up, add the baking powder to the potato mixture, and work it in quickly but thoroughly. The baking powder lightens the latkes’ texture a bit. It’s a nice addition. 

Drop a small morsel of the potato mixture into the oil; if it begins to sizzle, the oil is ready. Reduce heat to medium and begin adding spoons full of the mixture to the skillet, flattening them out until they’re as thin as you want them. Fry for three or four minutes on one side until golden and then turn them over, frying them for another three or four minutes.

Drain the latkes on paper towels, or keep them in a warm oven until you have as many as you want. Serve hot with sour cream and apple sauce.