Latkes, other favorites still perfect for connecting to true meaning of Hanukkah

Bringing joy to the spirit — and stomach
Latkes — served with sour cream or applesauce — along with brisket, top, remain Hanukkah favorites.
Latkes — served with sour cream or applesauce — along with brisket, top, remain Hanukkah favorites.

The biggest argument that might happen at Matthew Cutler’s holiday table is whether to put sour cream or applesauce on latkes.

Being the rabbi at Congregation Gates of Heaven synagogue in Schenectady, the debate is one that resonates deeply within for Cutler. When it comes to Hanukkah, few foods connect the meaning of the holiday with how we celebrate the way a latke can.

“Judaism is a very food-focused religion. We’re either giving it or taking it away,” said Cutler. The link between stomach and soul is strong during Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish celebration in December that marks the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the Maccabean Revolt. The holiday is often called the “festival of lights” to commemorate the lasting impact of lamp oil to light the Temple, which translates into the use of oil to cook food related to Hanukkah.

Latkes — a grated potato pancake mixed with onions and egg — are fried in oil and are often the most iconic and recognized item on a Hanukkah menu, but sufganiyot (the Jewish version of a jelly doughnuts) comes in a close second.

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“At Hanukkah there is a sense of renewal and hope, and a sense of light in darkness,” said Cutler, calling fried food another form of light during the dark winter days. There are many explanations of how these foods came to be part of Hanukkah, he said, but one explanation stems from early makeshift menorahs.

According to Cutler, Eastern Europeans (also known as Ashkenazi Jews) took ubiquitous potatoes and would carve deep holes in them, which would be filled with fat and a wick to light like a candle. “The situation was really tight and people tried not to waste.

They would take the used potatoes and turn them into pancakes,” or latkes, he said. Whether or not to garnish them with savory sour cream or sweet applesauce has more to do with the cultural traditions of an area, but in the Capital Region (where most of the Jewish population hails from Eastern European descent, Cutler said) both toppings are acceptable.

The potato isn’t the only emblematic ingredient during Hanukkah. Brisket is commonly served, as it is one of the choice cuts of meat that is also kosher-approved and is considered a rare treat historically. Egg and dairy-rich breads, like challah and babka, also grace the Hanukkah table. For Italian Jews, doughnuts were replaced with fried dough to combine tradition with local recipes, and Cutler said that sort of adaptation is becoming more prevalent in the Capital Region as cultures merge and more people of Jewish heritage outside of Eastern Europe make the region their home.

According to the 2010 Capital Region Jewish Community Study by the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York, 18.2 percent of Jewish residents in the local area have spouses that are non-Jewish. Hence, the incorporation of the flavors and traditions from other religious and cultural groups into the feast.

“People who have a partner or parent who is not Jewish adopt their heritage into what is served,” said Cutler. The incorporation of Asian, Latin American, North African, Middle Eastern and other world flavors have made the Hanukkah table a multicultural experience.

Cutler said it is all part of the “kavanah,” or spiritual intention, that is attached to the holiday. If it adds to your spiritual journey, put it on the table, he said. Hanukkah is a joyous, food-filled holiday that should bring joy to the spirit and stomach, and as long as the food served is done with the intention of honoring the traditions of Hanukkah (and abides by kosher regulations), it is fair game.

“If you have the opportunity to make the holiday come alive, do it,” said Cutler. Start with the basics on the table, then create flourish with accoutrements, garnishes and sides that bring a new twist to the millenia-old holiday.


Serves 8


6 large Russet potatoes, peeled
2 yellow onions, peeled
2 large eggs, beaten
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
or matzo meal
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Kosher salt
Fresh black pepper
Neutral oil (vegetable,
canola) for frying
Lots of ice!
Sour cream and applesauce, for serving

Fill a large bowl with water — about an inch. Have several cups of ice ready.

Grate the potatoes with the large holes on a box grater. Once potatoes are grated, place in the bowl of water and cover with ice.

Let the potatoes soak for at least 30 minutes. Make sure you cover with enough ice to keep cold for the entire 30 minutes.

In the meantime, grate the onions on the box grater and set aside.

After soaking for 30 minutes, carefully remove the potatoes from the water (squeeze over the bowl to remove water but do not drain the water out of the bowl!) and place on a kitchen towel. Wrap the towel around the pile of potatoes and wring the potatoes over the bowl of water to remove as much water as possible. Set the potatoes aside, and let the ice water sit for at least 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes, there will be a milky white layer of starch at the bottom of the bowl — this is the trick to awesome latke! Carefully pour off the water from the bowl, making sure to keep as much starch in the bowl as possible. Add the potatoes and onions to the bowl, along with the eggs, flour or matzo meal, baking soda, and about 1 tablespoon of salt and 2 teaspoon ground pepper. Mix well to combine.

In a large skillet or frying pan, heat about 1/4-inch of oil over high heat. Once the oil is hot and shimmers, drop round tablespoonfuls of latke batter into the oil, leaving 2 or so inches between each latke. Flatten the tops slightly with a spatula or the back of a spoon. Adjust the temperature of the oil if it seems too hot. Once the sides are starting to turn golden, flip and cook on the other side (cooking about 8 minutes in total).

Remove latkes from oil and allow to drain on several layers of paper towel. Serve immediately with sour cream and applesauce.

Deanna Fox is a freelance food writer.

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