Hanukkah is here, and the eight-day-long Jewish Festival of Lights is rich with rituals and traditions — from lighting the menorah to playing dreidel to singing songs to (our personal favorite) eating. And there is no perhaps no food more intertwined with Hanukkah than the lovely latke — those perfect little pancakes typically made of grated potatoes, eggs, onion, and matzo meal that always leave us begging our bubbies for more. Here are 10 things you may not have known about the holiday staple.
1. There’s a difference between potato pancakes and latkes.
While potato pancakes are strictly made from you know what, latkes, on the other hand, can be derived from vegetables ranging from Brussels sprouts to butternut squash, though the traditional Hanukkah version is most often made with the humble potato.
2. Latke literally means pancake.
In Yiddish, that is. Latke was originally derived from the Ukrainian word for pancake, oladka, according to Merriam-Webster, though other sources say that oladka actually stems from the Greek word eladia, which means “little oily thing.”
3. The oil it’s fried in is more important than the latke itself when it comes to Hanukkah.
The history and meaning of Hanukkah is too vast for a story like this, but the holiday dates back thousands of years to when a band of Jewish dissidents refused to worship Greek gods and revolted against Seleucid empire in order to celebrate their religion freely. To commemorate their victory and the rededication of their temple, they lit an oil-burning lamp. The story goes that while they only had enough oil to last one day, the lamp miraculously remained lit for eight days in what’s now known the miracle of Hanukkah. Today, foods including latkes and donuts are fried in oil as part of Hanukkah celebrations around the globe. So even if you typically swear off fried food, you get a pass in the name of the holiday.
4. Gail Simmons swears by one go-to tool for latke making.
That would be a food processor. Her mom Renee’s recipe uses the appliance’s shredding disk to create super long potato strands that end up extra crispy after frying. The result is what she calls a “light, airy and shredded crispy latke,” though the Top Chef judge admits using the food processor over a grater is a point of contention with latke purists.
5. The Internet is filled with topping ideas galore.
While sour cream and apple sauce are most commonly served alongside the pancakes, latke lovers have come up with plenty of creative alternatives, from olive tapenade to smoked salmon and caviar to pomegranate seeds. Aunt Esther might have a hard time accepting the newfangled accoutrements at first, but she may very well crumble when you serve her these brisket-topped babies.
6. A Southern California school’s attempt to create the world’s largest latke was a frying flop.
Last year, the Hebrew Academy of Orange County had planned to make a potato pancake that would clinch the world record at more than seven feet in diameter. But after pouring the batter — made up of more than 90 pounds of potatoes and 208 eggs — into a giant skillet filled with 35 gallons of canola oil, things fizzled. The oil never got hot enough and after four hours of cooking, dozens of little latkes floated to the top, dashing dreams for hundreds of students, teachers, other volunteers involved.
7. Comic Ben Schwartz recently came up with a catchy latke tune.
The Parks and Recreation actor even made an animated video for his “Eight Days of Latkes” original song with lyrical gems like “Better hang on to your yarmulke because the best part of this Hanukkah iiiiiiiiiiiiiiis... latkes!”
8. Latke-vodka parties are a thing.
The names rhyme and they’re both derived from spuds... so why not make a party out of the dynamic duo, right? Hip Hanukkah revelers have been pairing the two decadent items together for years now, and there are even latke-vodka parties for charitable causes... giving us even more reason to drink and eat fried stuff at the same time.
9. Some people love swapping in schmaltz.
According to The New York Times food writer Melissa Clark, frying latkes in schmaltz — chicken fat that’s been rendered down — rather than oil is how central and eastern European Jews typically cooked them before assimilating in America. According to Clark, the schmaltz turns out latkes that are crisp-edged with a complex, nutty, rich flavor. You can often get schmaltz from kosher butchers, or try making your own.
10. Bill Murray is behind beloved latkes in Charleston, South Carolina.
Along with some partners, the actor (who lives in Charleston) recently reopened Harold’s Cabin, which had been a longtime gourmet foods store owned by Harold Jacobs, a prominent member of the city’s Jewish community who died in 2009. It now serves as a trendy cafe and its latkes — currently part of a dish called the Harold & Lillian served with house-cured and smoked salmon, dill pickles, and crème fraiche — continues to score rave reviews and national press. Is there anything that Bill can’t do?
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