By the middle of Chanukah’s eight days, I’ve made traditional potato latkes at least twice, so I’m looking to stretch my imagination and the latke’s potential.
And my family happily indulges in latkes made from noodles, vegetables and ricotta cheese.
Because Chanukah celebrates the miracle of how a one-day supply of oil lasted eight days, I don’t feel guilty about tweaking latke ingredients. The word “latke” is Yiddish for pancake. By definition, there is no link to potatoes. Although Ashkenazi Jews claim potato latkes as Chanukah’s signature dish, these crisp potato pancakes are a relative newcomer to Jewish cuisine.
Originating in South America, potatoes were unknown in Europe until the 16th century, when explorers brought back tuber shoots. Because this crop flourished in Eastern Europe, potatoes became a staple of the diet. It didn’t take long for Jews to prepare pancakes from this inexpensive ingredient, which they browned in chicken schmaltz — except at Chanukah when goose fat prevailed.
Yet centuries before the potato’s debut in Europe, Chanukah pancakes were probably made with cheese in honor of the beautiful widow Judith. An unsung heroine, Judith was a contemporary of the Maccabees.
According to legend, she invited a general to dinner, knowing he intended to destroy her town. Because she served him salty cheese, he consumed huge quantities of wine to quench his thirst. When he fell into a drunken sleep, Judith took drastic measures. She murdered the general to save her town.
I was unaware of Judith’s story when I tasted my first ricotta pancake. But I knew that almost anything can be mixed with eggs and flour and fried to a crackling crunch. While I love traditional latkes, I don’t obsess about potatoes — because oil is the heart of Chanukah.
Vegetable Medley Latkes | Pareve or Dairy
Yield: eight to 10 latkes
- Vegetable oil for frying
- 1 small onion, peeled and chopped
- 12 small mushrooms, sliced thin and then chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 medium-sized carrots, grated
- 1 small parsnip, grated
- 1 cup frozen peas at room temperature
- 2 eggs beaten
- 4 tablespoons flour, or more if needed
- Optional accompaniment: sour cream
Heat the oil in a large skillet on a medium flame. Sauté the onion and mushrooms until wilted. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add the carrots, parsnip and peas to the skillet. Stir to combine for a minute. Remove from the flame and cool it to room temperature.
Move the vegetables to a large mixing bowl. Add the eggs and flour, mixing well with a long-handled spoon. If the batter is too loose to hold together, gradually add more flour until a moist batter forms.
Wipe out the cooled skillet with paper towels. Pour ¼-inch of oil into the skillet. Heat on a medium flame. Drop heaping tablespoons of batter into the skillet, flattening with the back of a spoon. Add more oil, if needed.
Don’t turn the latkes until the bottoms become golden brown. Keep turning until both sides are crisp and the centers are firm. Lower the flame, if necessary, to avoid burning the latkes.
Drain the latkes on two layers of paper towels. Serve immediately with sour cream, if using.
Carrot Noodle Latkes | Pareve
Yield: 12 to 14 latkes
- 8 ounces of fine noodles
- 1 bunch scallions
- 1-inch piece of ginger root
- 5 carrots, peeled and grated
- 2 eggs, beaten
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 4 tablespoons flour
- Sesame oil or corn oil for frying
- Optional accompaniment: soy sauce
Prepare the noodles according to package instructions.
While the noodles boil, cut off and discard the green part of the scallions. Cut the roots off the white part and discard. Slice the white part and then chop it. Reserve. Scrape the skin off of the ginger. Dice it and then chop it fine. Reserve.
When the noodles are ready, drain them in a colander and move them to a large mixing bowl. Add the scallions, ginger, carrots, eggs, salt, pepper and flour. Stir together with a spoon until well combined. If the batter does not hold together, gradually add more flour.
Pour ¼-inch of oil into a large skillet, preferably a nonstick skillet. Heat on a medium flame.
Drop heaping tablespoons of batter into the skillet, flattening with the back of a spoon. Add more oil, if needed. Don’t turn the latkes until the bottom sides are golden brown. A few noodles may break off when turning the first time. Turn until both sides are crisp but not burnt.
Drain on two layers of paper towels. Serve immediately with soy sauce for dipping, if using.
Root Vegetable Latkes | Pareve or Dairy
Yield: approximately 10 pancakes
- 2 cups of fully cooked steamed or sautéed carrots, parsnips, turnips, sweet potatoes or a combination
- Salt and pepper to taste — if vegetables weren’t already seasoned
- 1 egg, beaten
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 3 tablespoons corn oil, or more, if needed
- Optional accompaniments: sour cream or ketchup
Mix the vegetables in a blender on a medium setting or in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Blend until smooth and almost all lumps are gone. Check for seasoning and add salt and pepper, if needed. Mix in the egg and flour. Blend again until ingredients are incorporated.
Spoon the oil into a skillet and heat until warm. By rounded tablespoons, form the vegetable mixture into silver dollar-size pancakes using your hands. Pancakes should be 2 to 2½ inches in diameter.
Place the pancakes in the skillet. Let them sizzle for three to five minutes. Turn the pancakes when the bottom side is golden brown and not before. Add more oil, if needed. Sizzle until the other size turns golden brown, too. Serve immediately with sour cream or ketchup, if using.
Sweet Ricotta Pancakes | Dairy
Yield: 16 to 18 pancakes
- 1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
- 2 eggs
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, plus more oil for frying
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ¼ cup pignoli nuts or blanched slivered almonds
- Confectioners’ sugar for dusting
- Optional accompaniment: creme fraiche or sour cream
Place the ricotta cheese, eggs, flour, vegetable oil, sugar and vanilla extract in a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Process until the lumps disappear and the mixture swells to a creamy batter.
Scrape the sides of the food processor bowl with a spatula. Add the nuts and process briefly until well blended.
Pour ¼-inch of oil into a large, preferably nonstick skillet. Heat on a medium flame. Drop heaping tablespoons of batter into the skillet. When the pancakes bubble and the bottom sides are golden brown, gently turn and brown the other side. Add more oil, if needed.
When the centers are no longer gooey, move the pancakes to a platter.
Place a teaspoon of confectioners’ sugar in a small sieve and shake it over the pancakes to dust them.
Serve immediately with creme fraiche or sour cream, if using.