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I may be a half-breed, but I am wholly in love with potato pancakes. My Mamma, the Jew, makes them every year for my Dad’s fam, the gentiles. Identity crises aside, they’ve come to taste like holidays to us all and are perfect when made miniature and passed around to snack on before Christmas dinner…or for the New Year’s Eve fete you might be planning! And this year we did the unthinkable, the sacrilegious, the delicious; this year we added bacon! And crème fraiche. I know what you’re thinking, “Bad Jew!” But my religiosity doesn’t extend much further than the Seder plate or a cookie offering for Santa, though some might qualify my allegiance to Katz’s pastrami on rye as devout. To me, the holidays, whichever ones you choose to celebrate, are all about sitting around a table with people you welcome into your home, your heart, your dining room, all while eating a feast of biblical proportions.
Latkes are perennial favorites. The Tribe ate up a batch of Mamma’s when we all traveled to Buffalo last February to celebrate St. Valentine by making snow angels and sipping fireside hot toddies. And Celest recently ordered an haute version, served with a side of house-made applesauce, while celebrating her birthday at Park Avenue Winter. Potato pancakes have been so popular recently, they seem to have been featured in every mag, rag, blog, and menu out there. Saveur, Amateur Gourmet, Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and Park Avenue Winter have each taken a crack at ‘em, but shockingly, each recipe has forsaken the secret ingredient that all good kosher kitchens stock aplenty: matzo meal.
Matzo meal is to the kosher cook what breadcrumbs are to an Italian, the glue that binds all pan-fried dishes together. In fact, matzo meal can be substituted for equal parts breadcrumbs if ever you find yourself cooking for the kosher crowd. But since no such guest made their way to our Christmas dinner this year, I busted out the good stuff and laden my latke with bacon and crème fraiche, seasoned the batter with rosemary and garlic (why not?), and kept my perfect pancakes from falling apart by adding a heaping cup of matzo meal to the mix.
Potato Latkes (serves a small gathering as appetizers or 8 as entrees)
· 2 LB Potatoes (grated, I like Russets for their high-starch, sticky quality)
· 1 large Sweet Onion (diced)
· 1 Lemon
· 1 Egg
· 1 cup Matzo Meal
· 3 sprigs Rosemary (chopped)
· 3 cloves Garlic (diced)
· ¼ LB Slab Bacon (diced)
· 1 tub Crème Fraiche
· Salt and Pepper to taste
· Peanut Oil for frying
· Dill for garnish
After grating the potatoes and dicing the onion, squirt the lemon over the mixture to prevent browning, and pour into a non-reactive, non-metal strainer to drain off excess water (believe me, I made the strainer mistake once and ended up with metallic tasting latke…no bueno!). Do this for as long as you can get away with; the longer you strain, the drier the batter; the drier the batter, the better the latke.
In the meantime, prep all your seasonings. Latkes are vehicles for whatever herbs and spices you fancy. They can be kept simple by adding parsley and a little salt, but they will welcome whatever flavor combo you prefer. This recipe has a kind of “potato skins” feel to it and might also be good with a little kick from cayenne or Tabasco. If you’re adding bacon atop the latkes, now would be the time to fry that up too. I would even recommend doing it in the same pan you plan to fry the latkes in (there’s no sense in wasting perfectly good fond).
After the potatoes have been strained, mix in your seasonings, the egg, and the matzo meal. Cover the bottom of a frying pan with peanut oil and bring to medium-high heat. Turn the oven on its lowest setting (latkes must be made in batches so it’s best to keep them warm in the oven to finish cooking through while they wait to be devoured). Form the pancakes to be either entrée or bite-sized and fry for about 5 minutes on each side, or until golden brown. I like to form my pancakes in advance of frying them so that I have an entire batch ready to go when the time comes.
Garnish your latkes with a pillow of crème fraiche, a sprinkling of diced bacon, and a sprig of dill to add a little luster to otherwise laidback, low-maintenance latke.