My family loves latkes.
We are approaching latke-making season. I’ll explain more but Latke Season comes after pumpkin spice and sometimes overlaps with eggnog season.
In this article I’m going to share how I learned to make latkes, why I call my latkes shiksa latkes and how we incorporate this into our happy blended family.
What are latkes?
Latke’s are potato pancakes. Very similar to hash browns. Shredded potato, onion, egg and a little bit of matzoh meal or flour deep fried into deliciousness.
Latkes are typically served during the Jewish holiday of Hannukah.
I’m not Jewish. My husband is Jewish. We observe both Christmas and Hanukah traditions in our house over the winter holidays. Yes, it gets busy.
What is Hanukah and how are latkes connected?
I’m going to back up and give you a little primer about these things because only 2% of the world population is Jewish and so it’s silly to assume that you might know all the details about these holidays. Maybe you know some – maybe nothing. It’s all okay. I learned a lot of this after I married a Jewish man.
Hanukah is a celebration of a military victory in Jerusalem in the war – 2000 years BC between the Maccabees and King Antiochus. They won but got trapped in a temple and they believed they only had oil and supplies for 1 day but it lasted 8 days until reinforcements came. That’s the miracle. That’s why it’s 8 days and nights.
So in modern times Jews light a candle a night to honor the miracle that the oil lasted 8 days.
I am not a Jewish historian. Here is a link to a more complete history if you are curious.
During the 8 days it is also tradition to eat foods fried in oil. The connection here is the oil. Latkes and also donuts fried at home. I’ve never made the donuts but I have learned to make a pretty good latke over the years.
There are other things that happen during Hanukah but this is about my latkes.
Also as a note there are a few different ways to spell the word Hanukah and I have also probably misspelled it here a few times.
My husband LOVES fried foods.
He loves all fried foods.
Anytime I start to heat up oil and anything he’ll come in and say … oh that smells good. He loves fried foods.
French fries, onion rings, deep fried wings, fried chicken, tater tots. All the fried things. Latkes are no exception he loves them.
I have never met a version of potato that I don’t enjoy so we’re a good match there.
Latkes and my step-kids
Latkes are one of those recipes and traditions that I think pass down through families. Within many families people will have a lot of love wrapped up in how a person makes latkes. For my step-kids this is their mom’s mom (Grandma Bunny) and when I joined the family it was a special thing when once a year they would have latke’s with her.
I was not actually asked to make latkes. Which was fine.
My husband’s mom doesn’t love to cook – anymore. She cooked for her family for many years. She has cut way back as she got older. I’m not sure if she ever loved it. She definitely did it. Her kids both have lots of memories of delicious family meals. She made plenty of latkes and other specialty items for her family.
Once upon a time we were at her house with the grandkids – my step-kids and she heated up store bought frozen latkes. She knew that the step-kids loved and treasured the other grandma’s homemade latkes and so she wanted to tell the kids that these were homemade. There is a HUGE difference between homemade and store bought frozen latkes. Nobody was fooled.
This is when I think that the idea of me attempting to make latkes was first brought up. But I don’t think I tried them at that point.
My first latke attempt
I asked a Jewish mom friend to share her latke recipe.
Latke recipes I think may have variety from house to house and this was a different style of latke than my husband expected. The recipe was with a blender and included milk and flour. It was really like a breakfast crepe/pancake that included pureed potato. My husband did not like it at all.
This recipe was not repeated at our house.
I think that later that same year (or it may have been the next year) a neighbor invited us over to have latkes that her mom made. Here is that passing down the recipe element to this. My husband was as excited for this invitation as any other party we’ve perhaps ever gone to … because … fried foods.
At this point our daughter was 1 or 2 years old.
I think 2 years old because I have a memory that when they lit the hanukah menorah candles all the toddlers began to sing happy birthday. It was adorable. You aren’t supposed to blow the hanukah candles out but that year our kids did not yet understand and at least in our house we let our toddler blow them out.
You might have guessed that we aren’t terribly strict with maintaining rigorous religious traditions in my family.
Anyway the other thing that happened this night was that it became clear to me that my husband was in love with this recipe for latkes.
He made an official request that I try to make latkes.
I got to see how they were made. They looked a lot like hash browns to me so I figured I could give it a shot.
At some point in this process I also bought a Jewish cookbook that included a traditional recipe.
Grating potatoes – the food processor drama
Latkes begin with grated or shredded potatoes.
This is something that before we had food processors for many millenia was done by hand. I never had any intention of shredding potatoes by hand.
Honestly — that’s a lot of work. And come on … you know you will knick a knuckle … ouch.
My intention was to use a food processor. This was the only way I would even consider trying it.
I mentioned this to my mother-in-law and she thought that was unacceptable.
My mother in law is pretty low key so this was surprising that this was where she would lay down the law. She was clear. You cannot use a food processor to make latkes.
She even offered to have her husband grate the potatoes and they had a little fight about that because it’s a lot of work.
I also had a jewish friend tell me that my latke’s wouldn’t be real if they weren’t hand grated and I just kind of shrugged it off because … what did I know. And also … I was pretty confident that it was basically the same result.
Labor of love
I gave it a shot. I used the food processor and nobody complained.
In fact, the reviews from my family were … pretty good.
Even with the food processor latke’s are a ton of work. The whole house will smell like grease and my hands smell like onion for days.
The shiksa latkes tradition is created
The first trial of latkes was my husband, and his parents and maybe a toddler. Everybody was like let’s see if Amy can make latke’s.
They were okay. Pretty good even. I wasn’t sure on how big to shred the potatoes and there are other things that took some time to figure out like how to handle all the expressed potatoes water and how to keep the shredded potatoes from turning brown immediately. But overall fried potatoes are pretty yummy almost always.
The next year my husband began to request latke’s for all Jewish holidays and I made them … because what did I know? I mentioned it to a mom friend who laughed and said … nope only Hanukah. And in this conversation my friend used the word shiksa … for me.
Which is accurate. A shiksa is a non-Jewish woman (usually) in a relationship with a Jewish man. Factually Accurate.
However, shiksa is almost often a derogative term. This is not how my friend used it. She was making a joke.
However, I have been called a shiksa as a derogatory word. Twice that I know of. Maybe more behind my back.
I personally think shiksa is a fun word to say.
Shiksa Shiksa Shiksa … it’s a tongue twister. But it’s fun.
My mother-in-law hates the word. She hates that I call my latke celebration the shiksa latkes . She loves me. She calls them Amy’s latkes. That’s fine too. Less catchy but it’s all good.
Even though I know she hates it that I call them Shiksa latkes I do it anyway. Here’s why.
I think it’s a fun word to say.
It does accurately describes me and my relationship with my husband.
I do it to reclaim my own power over the word shiksa because when my family asks for the shiksa latkes … they do it with love.
How do I know this? Well, because over the years my shiksa latkes have become highly in demand within my family (and friends).
Why is it important to me to continue to use this word and reclaim it.
Because I feel like people should be empowered to love who they choose. Derogatory words for a non-traditional pairing of people … I will go ahead and speak up against that.
Words have power and the intention behind the words is important. When a word is used by some to create division or pain in others — that’s no good. But we can work to remove the stigma of painful words. We can work to reclaim and repurpose hurtful words. We can also work to desensitize ourselves to words intentionally.
Have you ever seen the movie, Fried Green Tomatoes? In the movie is a scene where a child loses all or part of an arm. They give him the nickname stumpy within the family because: everybody else will call him that so we should get used to it. I think that’s intentionally desensitizing and removing the power of a word.
Creating some shiksa latke house rules
I mentioned that this latke making process is a labor of love.
I also shared that after the first year my husband requested latkes ALL the time.
Over the years as I got better at making latkes. Their popularity grew in my family. I’ve actually had to put in some boundaries for when I will make latkes.
Rule 1. Only during hanukah. Once I learned that they weren’t served all year long I made this rule. There have been a few exceptions to this but that’s the first one I put in place. Sometimes I buy latkes for other holidays but I only do one huge latke batch from scratch.
Second rule is that I only make latkes one night during Hanukah. One year I tried to make them for all 8 nights and that was just ridiculous. This was my idea completely and it was a terrible idea. I tried to make 8 different kinds of latkes. What a mess. Nobody cared. Nobody liked the other styles. It was a huge mess for nothing. One night and that’s it.
The dates of hanukah change every year. One year, not too long ago, in my lifetime it overlapped Thanksgiving. It’s not uncommon that it will overlap Christmas every several years. And this is when I added the latest boundary … no latkes on Christmas eve. I tried. I also make homemade cookies on Christmas eve (for Santa and the reindeer) It was too much. Way too much. I was overwhelmed. New rule … no latkes on Christmas Eve.
Which leads to the next and final rule … on shiksa latke night that’s all I do. Everybody else is in charge of everything else.
Oh wait there is one more rule. I can’t get stranded in the kitchen while everybody else is enjoying the latkes. They take a long time to prepare a big batch and you can eat them very quickly. I missed out on most of the fun a few times and then I figured out how to serve them all at once so I could be part of the fun and not feel like a cook stuck in the kitchen.
So those are my rules. One night during hanukah and not Christmas Eve and I only make the latkes. All other food and drink up to others.
This is the only part of the Hanukah tradition that I oversee
At the start I mentioned that I’m not Jewish.
Part of the invisible workload of moms or women or primary homemakers (not quite sure how to avoid the gender coding in this sentence) can be that we take on the duties of all the holidays. I did fall into this role and I did eventually have to walk it back for my happiness.
Now the way we blend our religious traditions in our house is unique. There are lots of other ways to do this and I feel like it might be more common for a family to choose one set of dominant traditions. We didn’t do that in our house. We do it all and we do it hilariously.
I have learned a lot about Hanukah and Jewish holidays during the time I’ve been married to my husband.
It didn’t work well for us for me to try to oversee both Hanukah and Christmas. I tried. I thought it was my job for a while. I bought books and toys and tried to make it fun.
It stressed me out. I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I wasn’t good at it. I didn’t do the things right. Nobody was having fun. It wore me out before Christmas even started.
So I stopped.
The technical term for what I did is actually, “disengage.”
What does disengage actually mean?
It means that my husband and I had a conversation where I said I don’t want to have these responsibilities anymore I think you should do it. He said, okay. Then I let him do it his way with no interference or judgement or even double secret judgement from me. I’ll talk more about how I disengage in other articles but that’s the short version.
My husband handles the menorah’s, the hanukah presents, the candles, the songs and I make latkes.
Everybody is happy. Well my husband probably wishes for more latkes.
Kids and Step-kids we think it’s a fun holiday tradition
Shiksa Latke night has become a seasonal occasion at my house. My kids invite friends. My in-laws come over. My step-kids if they are in town try to coordinate it so that it doesn’t fall on the same day as their grandma’s latkes.
It’s great. We love it.
Oh and a quick update on the food processor drama. Several few years after the first batch of food processed latkes my mother-in-law bought her own food processor to make latkes at a party with her friends. It may not be authentic but it’s much faster/easier.
Amy’s Shiksa Latke Recipe
A big bag of potatoes (peeled and soaked in cold tap water … you can put a little bit of vinegar or lemon juice in the water to keep the potatoes white but if you move quickly you may not need to do that) Bonus tip – don’t put potato peels down a disposal.
A giant white onion (or maybe two medium onions … it’s a lot of onion) Peeled and quartered
3 eggs – cracked and stirred with a fork
Some matzoh meal (that’s not really an official measurement … some … about 1/2 cup)
Salt and pepper
A lot of vegetable oil. I heat the oil in cast iron skillets — deep cast iron skillets. And you’ll need a place to dispose of the old oil at the end. I let it cool and then put it back into a vegetable oil bottle and throw it away. Do not put it down the drain.
I use a food processor with the circular shredder on the medium size to shred the potatoes.
I also have a GIANT bowl I use to make latkes that is only used for this. My sister-in-law bought it for me after she watched me use every single bowl in my kitchen one year. When we last moved my husband said, “what is this huge thing? And do we need it?”
I said,”That’s the latke bowl.”
And he said, “okay, so yes we NEED it.”
I alternate potato and onion in the food processor. I put the shredded bits into a big bowl with a huge piece of cheese cloth and I salt them as I go. After each round of stuff from the food processor I cover the salted potato and onion with the cheesecloth and apply a little weight to the top.
I think that the salt and weight helps the potatoes to release extra starch and water which helps them fry faster. I think mixing the onion and potato and covering it with cheesecloth helps keep the potato from oxidizing and turning brown before they are fried. Every so often I pour the potato water out from the bowl.
Once all the potatoes and onions are all grated I add the mixed egg and matzoh (or flour) and mix it all up. You can probably use a spoon but I always end up using my hands.
Then I fry them in small batches. Each latke is pretty much a large tablespoon full of mix.
When the outside bits are dark brown I flip them. Flipping latkes for me requires two utensils. I use one spatula and then like a spoon or something so it doesn’t just slide away. I’m not sure if this is because part of my technique is lacking or if this is just the way it goes.
I keep them warm on trays in the oven set to about 250 and serve them all together at the end with sour cream and applesauce.
Some of these steps I invented myself. So, I’m super curious to hear how other people make latkes and whether there are easier ways to do what I’ve been doing.
What unique holiday traditions do you have for your family?