Latke Love: One New Yorker’s Triumphant Quest for the Perfect Potato Pancake

| December 19, 2011 4:00 AM

Dori Fern poses with her award-winning latkes. Check out her recipe below and make your own this Hanukkah. Photo by Ashley Neglia.

While I’m deeply attracted to culinary endeavors, I’m not a particularly methodical or, frankly, traditional person by nature. So my long, dogged path toward latke perfection is a bit of a curiosity. Childhood memories played no part in it, except as a cultural reference point shared by Hanukkah-celebrants everywhere and especially here in New York City, where I was raised. Still, I have only vague recollections of my grandmother’s latkes and none of my mom’s, though my mother assures me I was not deprived of them.

My quest began soon after I became a mother myself. In late 1998, I wrote a story for TimeOut New York featuring my picks for the best potato pancakes being served in a variety of New York City restaurants. To my taste, the best were delicate pillows enrobed in a golden-crisp exterior, with just the right amount of salt to announce the potato-onion flavor without eclipsing it. Revisionist pancakes I tried (sweet potato! stuffed!) were okay, but not the essence of latke. I ate versions high and low. The best latkes, regardless of how dressed up or down they were, were ultimately the most basic.

My model for greatness was not from the most likely source. At Cafe Boulud, then-chef Daniel Boulud’s dish was a haughty affair, a potato pancake sandwiched between salmon tartare, a quail egg and caviar. But like Cinderella at midnight, the unadorned beauty of that latke held its own amid the glitz. Simple and light and, I would later learn, absent of typical binders like flour and matzoh meal. This would become a hallmark of my own gluten-free latkes.

What I’ve gleaned after 13 years of latke study is that small details make a difference. The recipe below is full of tips, but here’s the clincher: potatoes matter! I’m not only talking type here. Yes, you want to use a starchy variety, like russet. But freshness counts more than you may think, as older russets possess a slightly bitter, “off” taste. Avoid ones that are soft, have eyes, or are tinged green. Also, though my heart belongs to the classic version, I admit I am not adverse to a little schmaltz. Literally. The juicy richness of latkes cooked in duck or chicken fat is a worthwhile splurge.

    Like Boulud, I subscribe to the leave-latkes-alone-play-with-toppings approach. Some people are very sour cream or applesauce about the matter, but we are quite egalitarian in my home. We love all manner of toppings, and sometimes in a single bite. Lately, I’ve taken to whimsy. I went locavore this summer, serving the fried spuds with a peach coulis, homemade ricotta and a sprinkling of fresh corn kernels. Yes, my two children and I eat latkes all year long. Why not?

    This holiday season, in honor of Hanukkah’s Christmas crossover, I created the ever-so-deliciously-silly Double Happiness Latkes with Five Spice Duck Confit in celebration of Jews’ favorite Dec. 25 meal: Chinese food. Each pancake is dabbed with duck sauce and Chinese mustard, then topped with the spiced confit. They’re chewy, crunchy, salty, sweet, a little hot and quite lovely, if I may say so. And while they’re about as authentic as a plastic Hanukkah bush, they are, nonetheless, a heartfelt shout-out both to tradition and to the French master who inspired latke greatness.

    Perhaps it’s the kitsch factor that led the good folks at Edible Brooklyn to declare my submission winner of this year’s latke recipe contest. Or maybe they were struck by the combination of reinvention and reliability, good humor and taste that — come to think of it — are very much “me” after all.

    My Recipe for Double-Happiness Latkes topped with Five-Spice Duck Confit:

    Step 1: Five-Spice Duck Confit

    Prepare the Five-Spice Duck Confit. This should be done one or two days before you plan to fry the latkes. Two legs is more than enough for double the latke recipe below.

    Ingredients:

    • 2 Moulard duck legs
    • 2 teaspoons five-spice powder
    • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
    • 1 1/2 teaspoons dark brown sugar
    • 2 tablespoons minced shallot
    • 5 garlic cloves, minced
    • grated zest of one orange
    • 1 teaspoon white pepper
    • Duck Sauce (preferably the jarred kind, not the watery stuff in packets)
    • Chinese yellow mustard (optional). Equal parts Colman’s dry mustard powder and water will do the trick, too.

    Directions:

    1. Rub the five-spice powder all over the legs, being sure to rub some under the skin, onto the duck flesh. Rub salt, brown sugar and pepper evenly over the skin and underside of the legs.
    2. Put half the shallots and garlic underneath the duck legs, half on top.
    3. Cover and refrigerate for one to two days.
    4. Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Blot dry and place snugly in a small baking dish. Cover dish with lid or foil and cook for about four hours. Duck is done when it pulls easily away from the bone (and your whole home is redolent of duck fat and five-spice powder). No additional fat is necessary, though confit purists might beg to differ. Whatever.
    5. Strain accumulated duck fat through a cheesecloth-lined fine mesh colander before using it for frying.
    6. Prepare latke recipe below. Before frying the potatoes, place duck legs, uncovered, in a 500 degree oven for about 10-15 minutes, until the skin is crisp.

    Step 2: Dori’s Best Latkes

    Now that you’ve prepared the confit, you’re ready for Dori’s Best Latkes. This recipe yields approximately 12 latkes.

    Ingredients:

    • 3 medium to large russet potatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds)
    • 1 medium yellow onion
    • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt or to taste
    • Freshly ground black or white pepper or a combination of both
    • 1 large egg
    • Duck fat and/or vegetable oil for frying. (A mix of the two is fine. Or if you’re vegetarian, can’t find duck fat, or are on a duck-free diet,  just use vegetable oil.)

    Directions:

      1. In medium bowl, grate onion on the large holes of a box grater.
      2. Peel and grate potatoes into the onion (this helps prevent the potato from discoloring).
      3. Add salt and pepper and mix thoroughly, tasting a strand of potato and adding more salt and/or pepper to taste.
      4. Scoop the potato-onion mixture with your hands, squeezing out excess liquid and placing dry mixture into another medium-large sized bowl. Repeat until all the “dry” potato-onion mixture is in one bowl, and save the potato liquid in the other. Let the liquid sit about 10 minutes, giving the potato starch time to settle to the bottom of the bowl.
      5. Add egg to potato-onion mixture and mix well (hands are the best mixing implement here!).
      6. Pour off the liquid squeezed from the potato and onions. There should be a nice layer of potato starch accumulated at the bottom of the bowl (the starchier the potatoes, the more you’ll find). Scoop out the starch and incorporate it into the potato mixture.
      7. In a heavy, good quality skillet or cast iron pan, add about an inch of oil (you’ll want the latkes about halfway submerged in fat while frying) and heat over medium-high flame. You’re ready to go when a strand of potato sizzles when added to the pan.
      8. Scoop out a small handful of the potato mixture, and press between your hands to flatten and squeeze out any excess liquid. Make sure the pancakes are even, not too thick in the middle, and about 3 inches around for an average-size latke. Gently add to skillet and cook, making sure not to crowd the pan, for about two to three minutes per side or until golden brown. Take care not to fuss with them while they’re cooking or they may fall apart.
      9. Add more fat after each batch as necessary. Too little will cause the latkes to burn on the outside before cooking inside.
      10. Remove from pan and place on a paper-towel lined cookie sheet rack.

      Step 3: Assemble the Double Happiness Latkes

      1. Remove the crisped duck skin and reserve.
      2. Take the duck meat off the bone, shred finely with your hands.
      3. Spread a thin layer duck sauce on top of each latke.
      4. If you’re using it, dab a little Chinese mustard in the center of each latke.
      5. Layer on about one teaspoon of shredded duck leg.
      6. Top with a shard of crispy skin.
      7. Eat!

      Dori Fern is a food writer and editor who works in digital marketing. Born and raised in the Bronx, Dori now lives in Brooklyn with her 15-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son.

      • Shari Kerr

        I giggled and salivated my way through this piece! The recipe is printing now. I can’t wait to try it! Thanksgiving weekend is NOT my time to shop, but cozy up with recipes and good food. Shari from Oklahoma.

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