The first time I ever made latkes it was for 150 people. I was working as a caterer in a synagogue at the time, and when Hanukkah rolled around, the fry fest was ON. Like it or not, I had to go from total novice to potato pancake pro in record time, and the stakes were pretty high.
With a combination of good advice, guesswork and luck, I managed to pull it off. Here are the hacks that made all the difference, plus a few more tips that have made subsequent Hanukkah parties even more delicious (and a lot less stressful!).
You Don’t Actually Have to Peel and Shred All Those Potatoes By Hand
I know, I know. But hear me out. They sell perfectly good ready-to-use shredded potatoes right near the eggs and butter in the grocery store. (When it’s not Hanukkah, we call these hashbrowns.) I swear no one can tell the difference, and the time you’ll save is enormous.
Yes, You CAN Fry and Freeze
I’m not gonna lie. No frozen latke is ever going to taste quite as good as the one that came out of the oil 30 seconds ago. But with the right handling, you can get pretty close.
If you’re entertaining a big crew and love spending the whole party over the stove, by all means fry ‘em fresh. But if you’d rather spend your celebration mingling, here’s how to cheat it:
Fry up to a week ahead, placing the latkes on baking sheets lined with paper towels as they come out of the oil. Once they cool, layer them into storage containers (shoe boxes work fine too), with plastic wrap or waxed paper between each layer.
When you’re ready to party, take the latkes directly from freezer to baking tray and bake at 400 F for about 10 minutes, until very hot and maybe even a little extra browned at the edges.
I’ve found the whole fry-freeze-heat process works best if you keep your potato pancakes on the small side. Petite pancakes crisp up more nicely than great big ones.
Follow a recipe for basic proportions if you like, but in my experience latkes are more art than science.
Here’s how to wing it: Shred up a bunch of potatoes to match the size of your party and your patience for frying. Throw in a beaten egg or two — enough to make the mixture nice and moist but not soupy. Add a generous sprinkle of salt, pepper if you like it, and finely chopped onion (more on that in a minute). Finish up with a tablespoon or two of flour or matzoh meal to help the mix feel a little gluey, rather than just eggy.
The liquid of the eggs will settle out as the mixture sits, so make sure to give it a good stir every couple of minutes while you’re working your way through the batch.
Fry and Try
Despite what any recipe may say, there’s only one way to determine the right amount of onion, salt and pepper (or other seasoning if you’re getting adventurous) for your latkes: fry a test pancake and eat it, then adjust as needed. Repeat this process until you’re thrilled with the result, then get serious and fry the rest.
A note about salt: potatoes don’t have a ton of flavor on their own, so it’s important to season up the latke mixture. But don’t go overboard: leave it a touch under-salted, then sprinkle good sea salt on the pancakes as a finishing touch immediately before serving. Anyone who’s ever enjoyed a french fry will understand the magic of this salt-the-surface technique.
Give Tradition a Twist
A good potato-and-onion latke topped with applesauce, sour cream or a combo of both is pretty much perfection on a plate. But who can resist playing around a little once in a while? No one, that’s who.