Making ‘old country’ latkes in the ‘new world’

Making ‘old country’ latkes in the ‘new world’

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 Hanukka 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 matza meal to make them crunchy.

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

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