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Making ‘old country’ latkes on this side of the Atlantic

Jamie Geller's version of her grandfather's glorious, crunchy potato latkes. (From "Quick & Kosher: From the Bride Who Knew Nothing")

Jamie Geller’s version of her grandfather’s glorious, crunchy potato latkes. (From “Quick & Kosher: From the Bride Who Knew Nothing”)

NEW YORK (JTA) — My grandparents really knew how to cook. It seems to me that everyone born in the "old country" — in this case Transylvania — was born with built-in cooking intuition. Somehow they could create the most scrumptious meals using no fancy equipment, or even measuring spoons.

They hosted every holiday humbly, I recall, turning out the expected delicacies with what seemed like the simplest, most relaxed effort. No exotic flavor profiles nor food combos or wine pairings; no attempts at reinventing the wheel, because when the food is that good — make that superb — there’s no need to find a “twist” on the recipe.

On Chanukah we were treated to their potato pancakes, latkes that were classic and simple. My grandfather, a professional chef, wore a manly white waist apron that suited him perfectly. His latkes were made of eggs, onions, potatoes, oil, salt, pepper and a little matzah meal to make them crunchy.

“Corn meal, that’s also good, if you don’t have any matzah meal,” he would say reassuringly, though you knew that he secretly wondered what kind of kitchen would not have a handful of matzah meal somewhere.

The potatoes were hand-grated so fine — almost to a pudding-like consistency — then lightly fried in a pan that looked as though it, too, had just come over from the old country. Applesauce and sour cream traditionally accompany latkes, but who needed them? Crispy on the edges, with a fluffy, buttery smooth center, Grandpa’s version of this Chanukah delicacy could stand alone.

Born on this side of the Atlantic — Philly, to be exact — I lack the natural cooking instincts of my forebears. It’s a long way from Transylvania to Pennsylvania, and somewhere en route centuries of culinary know-how evaporated. When I married, I was “the bride who knew nothing” about cooking, and I do mean nothing. I had a kitchen twice the size of Grandpa’s boyhood cottage, fully loaded with waffle makers, woks, crepe pans, panini presses, espresso brewers, food processors and two ovens — and no idea what to do with any of them.

The first Chanukah after my wedding, I called my grandfather for his latkes recipe. He gave it to me with “measurements” like “a sprinkle of salt, a few spoons of matzah meal, some oil …” All the while, I wished I had watched him in action when he was in his prime. I could have taken notes, measured out the amounts he used, studied his grating technique.

But I was on my own. Tasked with re-creating Grandpa’s latkes, I tried and failed, tried and failed — until I finally produced something that is reminiscent of his glorious, crunchy potato perfection. The recipe went into my first published cookbook, "Quick & Kosher: Recipes from the Bride Who Knew Nothing." It’s reprinted here, in loving memory of my grandfather.

My husband and kids say these latkes are the best in the world. They are very good — but they’re not Grandpa’s. Maybe it’s my food processor and that fancy-shmancy skillet.

LATKES (POTATO PANCAKES)
Prep: 12 minutes   
Cook: 18 to 24 minutes
Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients:
4 medium Idaho potatoes
6 tablespoons canola oil or olive oil
3 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons matzah meal
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon coarse black pepper
Applesauce or sour cream (optional)

Preparation:
1. Prepare a large bowl filled with cold water
2. Peel potatoes, and as you finish each, place in cold water to prevent browning.
3. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
4. Cut potatoes lengthwise into halves or quarters so they fit into food processor feed tube. Process potatoes using the blade that creates thin, shoestring-like strips and transfer to a large bowl.
5. Add eggs, matzah meal, salt and pepper; mix well.
6. Drop 6 to 8 spoonfuls of mixture into hot oil. Using the back of a spoon, pat down each latke to flatten it. Put as many as you can in the skillet without crowding. Putting them too close together will make them soggy.
7. Fry 3 to 4 minutes on each side, until golden and crisp around the edges; repeat procedure until finished with all the batter.
8. Blot excess oil with paper towels.
9. Serve warm with applesauce or sour cream, if desired

Tip:
Corn meal is a great substitute for matzah meal and also will make your latkes nice and crispy.

About the recipe:
Just like they used to do it in the old country! These latkes are not loaded with potato starch, flour, baking powder or other non-essential ingredients. My grandfather shared this recipe with me when I told him that I thought his were the crunchiest, lightest and most perfect potato latkes I’ve ever eaten.

(Jamie Geller is the author of the best-selling "Quick & Kosher" cookbook series and creator of the Joy of Kosher with Jamie Geller magazine. Her cooking show, “Quick and Kosher,” airs Mondays on JLTV at 9 p.m. Eastern time. Follow more of Geller’s Quick & Kosher cooking adventures on Twitter @JoyofKosher and on facebook.com/joyofkosher.)

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