SCOTT — I hated my mother’s latkes. I need to be honest about this: I hated them. Potato latkes, the traditional food of Hanukkah, the culinary equivalent of the menorah
SCOTT — I hated my mother’s latkes. I need to be honest about this: I hated them. Potato latkes, the traditional food of Hanukkah, the culinary equivalent of the menorah or dreidel, meant nothing to me. Because when I thought of latkes, I thought of a sodden, oily mass of gummy, gluey potato gunk with a thin skin of deep-fried crust around it that was not crispy but chewy. Yum, right?
Mind you, nothing against my mom’s cooking — she made a brisket to die for, no lie — but this was the ’60s, and she’d open a box of latke mix, make them like pancakes, and feed them to us, like it or not, every year around Hanukkah. I’d choke them down and go about my business, focusing my holiday food desires on waxy, sugary chocolate coins wrapped in foil to be amassed during games of dreidel.
I bring this up because I want to tell you about my wife’s latkes: light, golden latticeworks of fried potatoes so expertly cooked that you feel like you can see every grated strand perfectly embraced by its crisp brown outer skin. Potatoes grated so tenderly that the latkes seem almost braided. Centered, warm from the pan, on a little white plate with a dollop of sour cream, a little applesauce, and even, my God, a little caviar on top. We have latkes several times each Hanukkah, opening the house for visitors at least once. And honestly? People begin angling for invitations to Latke Night by October.
We love having friends over for latkes. We love lighting the candles, love telling the story of Hanukkah, playing dreidel, the whole thing. We’ve even developed our take on sufganiyot — or jelly doughnuts, another Hanukkah staple — but I’ll let June tell you about that.
JUNE — Someone who loves bread and pastries as much as I do ought to be better at making them. I cannot manage yeast dough, and though my forebears were a quick-bread people, I never got the knack for scratch biscuits, either — simple but not easy, requiring an assured light touch and finesse that I could not land. My attempts were tough from overhandling, and somehow both over- and undercooked — black-bottomed, often goopy-centered.
You can imagine, then, my admiration for canned biscuit dough: no more skill required than to press a spoon into the diagonal seam of the cardboard carapace and pop them free, already formed into perfect round pillows dotted with yellow shortening. Nothing resembling scratch biscuits, but absolutely reliable, and delicious in their own right. And if you bought and baked a name-brand dough, you could peel away and melt each tender layer on your tongue.
But the first and most important thing to know about canned biscuit doughnuts is that they should be made from the cheapest canned dough you can find. In my family, the golden layers of your Hungry Jack or your Borden’s Buttermilk were antithetical to the pastry as we understood it. This was decades before the ascension of the cronut; we, as a society, were not ready.
SCOTT — Of course, background on latkes: Hanukkah is, as you know, the holiday that Jews celebrate around the winter solstice. It all started with the rule of Judea in the second century BCE by the Seleucid Greek dynasty; trouble among the Jews about assimilation. Around 168 BCE, the Seleucids said, “OK, then, no Judaism at all!” and turned the Jewish Temple into a shrine to Zeus. More trouble; eventually, Judah Maccabee (“Judah the Hammer”) led a plucky band of rebels who fought against the oppressing forces, their small groups miraculously defeating the much larger occupying army and freeing their people. Jews celebrate Hanukkah (in Hebrew, “dedication”) to commemorate their rededicating the temple; we consider it the first war ever fought for religious freedom. It’s a lovely holiday. Though minor for Jews, it has grown large by competing with Christmas, the noisy cousin who has to be in all the pictures.
The part of the story that you know, of course, is that when the Jews relit the everlasting light that burns in the temple, they found only a single vial of oil unspoiled by the oppressors, enough to last a day. Yet the oil lasted for eight days while the Jews prepared more. Thus, we burn candles — adding one more on each of eight nights — to commemorate that light. To celebrate the oil itself? We fry foods — latkes, mostly. Enter my wife.
June is a lapsed Baptist who’s raised two fine Jewish boys and calls herself “Jewish-ish,” which is just fine for us all; we’re a big-tent family. But when you grow up in North Carolina and you marry someone who has a troubled history with fried foods, this is a problem that you were born to solve. And solve it June has.
Fried foods are traditional at Hanukkah, and, of course, they’re an anytime favorite for Southerners.
JUNE — My aunt Kathy learned to make canned biscuit doughnuts from her home-economics teacher, Mrs. Evelyn Johnson, as a senior at Angier High School in the Year of Our Lord 1976. Kathy passed down this wisdom to my sister and me that very summer, when she stayed with us in Raleigh and babysat while my parents worked.
I was newly 7, my sister Jenny nearly 10. I could crack open the cans, thumb holes in the biscuit centers to make them doughnut-shaped, and, once they were fried, roll them in powdered sugar. Jenny, however, was deemed old enough to man the electric fry pan, and, one day, she and her friend Tracie (or maybe it was Patti or Regina — I revered and resented all of her feather-haired friends equally) made and devoured an entire batch, leaving me none. I’m going to guess that a batch was either one can of 10 or two to three cans of five, or perhaps three cans of four — so a dozen or so.
Kathy was such a kindhearted and scrupulously fair babysitter that, after we’d glommed onto her all day long, she took turns sleeping with my sister and me rather than demand a bed to herself. When she learned how I’d been wronged on the doughnuts, Kathy let me help her make a new batch and bid me to eat my fill.
I understood this to mean that Jenny and her friend would be allowed to have any doughnuts that were left. The obvious and only conclusion: leave none behind. I gorged with malicious intent. They’re so fatty and sweet, three or four are enough to risk a stomachache in a full-size adult. I recall mashing the last of them flat to take up less space in my belly, a technique of professional competitive eaters. And then … bloated, distended agony.
Reader, some 35 years passed before I could entertain another canned biscuit powdered sugar doughnut. I was, by then, a lapsed Southern Baptist, the wife of a Jewish Northerner, and the mother of two small boys — all of us fueled largely by carbohydrates. We were raising our little mensches Jewish to the best of our ability, Scott and I, and were also trying, with varying degrees of success, to create some family traditions that were meaningful to each of us but bridged each other’s experiences.
It was honestly a relief to let the bombastic, spendy Christmas traditions mostly reside at my mother’s house, though I still overdid it on the gifts and bristled when Scott briefly pushed back on the miniature tree that I was calling a Hanukkah bush. We found our holiday sweet spot in the miracle of the oil.
Fried foods are traditional at Hanukkah, and, of course, they’re an anytime favorite for Southerners. I soon understood that latkes, at their crispy best, were hash browns shaped into patties. And since fresh-grated potatoes require forceful wringing in a towel to leach out all the moisture, yet still are quick to turn gray and slimy in the bowl, I eventually found that a wonderful latke shortcut was to start with frozen hash browns.
We burn candles to commemorate the light. To celebrate the oil? We fry foods — latkes, mostly.
SCOTT — I remember the first time June and I prepared to make latkes together. She brought out the grater, and I didn’t even know what was going on, that’s how used to the prepackaged mix I was. We grated the potatoes and an onion, added a little bit of egg, some flour to bind, pepper and kosher salt, but it’s really June’s recipe, and I’m glad to leave it to her.
That first year, the latkes were a revelation, if a little on the hash-browny side; every year since then, they’ve progressed closer to what I guess you would have to say is perfection: crisp and brown outside, smooth and creamy inside, and did I mention the caviar on top of the sour cream? June cooks them in an electric frying pan, five at a time, and by the time I’ve returned to the kitchen to help with the next batch, those five are gone. There tends to be a lot of conversation in the kitchen, which, of course, gives you easy access to latkes, but is also the mark of a good party — and of a happy household, Jewish, Jewish-ish, or anything else.
JUNE — Once I’d conquered the holiday entrée, my thoughts turned to dessert, and I found my through line back to canned-biscuit powdered sugar doughnuts. They were the perfect counterpart to sufganiyot, minus the jelly filling, which … eww! The first time I served this ambrosia to my mensches, I achieved peak motherhood.
The doughnuts are heavier than Krispy Kreme but less dense than Dunkin’. And their flavor is light-years beyond a store-bought powdered doughnut; I think some caramelization occurs when they’re dunked in hot fat and then directly rolled in the powder. I now cut them into quarters for a faster, more even fry and find that they most resemble a beignet in taste and texture. Add a little cinnamon if you’re feeling fancy. And I think you could syringe them full of jelly, post-fry, if you felt strongly enough about it — just don’t let them get too cold before you dredge them in the sugar. In fact, never let them get cold. They do not keep and must be consumed in a single sitting. You could even try them with name-brand dough.
But mind their power. They are too potent for mere mortals to feast upon unchecked. You may make them in batches of no more than a dozen, which you must share with others, and no more than thrice over the eight nights of Hanukkah. And you must time the making of them at least two nights apart. Then, and only then, will you be ready to eat them again in the space of only a year.
SCOTT — What I love most about our latkes is how perfectly they represent our blended family. This is a Jewish holiday, and a Jewish food, and we’re a Jewish (and Jewish-ish) household, so that’s where we start. But then they also embrace our own complex mixture of who we really are, so you get championship-level North Carolina frying in there, and you end up with something miraculously blended.
Hanukkah is a holiday of rededication, of taking something imperfect and making the best of it until its beauty shines through, and I think our latkes represent that spirit of “let’s find a way.” You make something beautiful and delicious by mixing together whatever ingredients you have on hand. You make your food like you make your family, and the simple procedure reads almost like a recipe: mix, heat, love.