Like many pantry emergencies, one that befell my mother in the early 1980s led to a genius bit of culinary improv that has persisted for three decades.
Roberta Jackson was expecting an apartment full of company one December, and was about to fry up some potato latkes before her guests arrived. After grating the potatoes and onions — by hand, of course — she ambled to the pantry to grab the flour, and realized she was all out.
Latkes, if you don’t know, are potato pancakes, crunchy, deep-fried deliciousness very often cooked up for the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which begins at sundown Sunday.
Almost every recipe for latkes is pretty much the same: potato, onion, flour, egg, salt, pepper, hot oil, go. Adventurers can spruce them up with chives or any variety of root vegetables. You can top them with the mainstays of sour cream and applesauce, go fancy with crème fraîche and caviar, or enjoy them with whatever else you have on hand. Latkes, in fact, lend themselves to improv.
It doesn’t take a lot of flour to bind the batter together before frying, and crafty cooks can dispense with it altogether if they manage to collect the starch from the shredded potatoes. Other cooks swear by breadcrumbs or ground matzah. But that night, while toddler-me bounced around the apartment before a bunch of hungry people came over, my mom urgently needed flour.
What she used instead: pancake mix.
“I was going crazy, and I saw the Aunt Jemima, and I thought, let me try it,” she recalled this week.
The mix is essentially flour with a little sugar and leavener. (Don’t use the buttermilk kind, if you want to keep the pancakes dairy-free.)
“It worked,” she said. “Nice flavor, nice texture.”
I’d have to agree, because those are the only latkes of hers that I’ve ever known. She never went back to plain old flour.
Latkes are so simple and yet terribly easy to mess up. If you’ve ever been served a heavy hockey puck of a potato pancake, you know what I mean. But these slightly leavened latkes are always fluffy and light, thanks in part to Aunt Jemima’s pancake prowess, and in larger part to the skill of the cook at the frying pan.
My mother doesn’t limit her latke-making to Hanukkah, instead enjoying them throughout the winter. But the smell of the potatoes and onions caramelizing to a deep brown in that bubbling oil always brings back memories of the holiday — especially that fateful Hanukkah when her recipe became altered forever.
Technically, anyone can put anything in latkes, and in the age of culinary daring that we currently live in, why not? On healthy kicks, I’ll make them with parsnips and carrots, or any other root veggies that look good. This Hanukkah, I’m thinking celeriac.
Even my grandmother got experimental. Bear in mind, Roberta generally wasn’t a huge fan of Grandma Gertie’s cooking. “One year, she was on a paprika kick,” my mother told me. “Everything she made had paprika: scrambled eggs, potato latkes. She’d go, ‘Come on, it’s colorful.’ ” (Gertie’s orange-tinted latkes sound delicious to me.)
Suffice it to say, that was one Hanukkah my mother would rather not remember.