During the frosty Montreal winters of my childhood, I’d often come home to find my mother at the stove frying up a batch of potato pancakes. The aromas and gentle sizzling sounds rising from the pan were always familiar and soothing. These pancakes, which some of you might know as “latkes,” are a traditional food for Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. After years of trial and error, our family recipe has been perfected and lovingly passed along from generation to generation. The pancakes are easy to make—you whip up a batter with grated potatoes and a few other ingredients and then pan-fry it in spoonfuls. When properly prepared, the finished pancakes are crisp around the edges and soft and chewy in the center, and eating them is sheer pleasure. But there are a few tricks to getting them right, so if you’ve never made potato pancakes before, look to the following guidelines to help get you started.
Use starchy potatoes, like russets.
The starch acts like glue, helping hold the pancakes together. Plus, starchy potatoes have a lower water content than waxy potatoes—and less water means a crispier pancake.
Grate the potatoes in a food processor.
Before food processors were invented, cooks grated the potatoes on a box grater. This was tedious and often caused unpleasant knuckle scraping. Fortunately, a food processor can do the grating much faster. Next, you’ll salt the potatoes, which both seasons and draws water from them (this helps the pancakes brown when frying). Then return the potatoes to the food processor, process them until finely minced, and combine them with a few other ingredients to create a batter: egg and flour, which are both good binders, baking powder for lightness, a little oil for richness, and salt and pepper to season.