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Latkes, or potato pancakes, are a traditional Jewish dish, often served during Hanukkah. They have gained popularity as a Hanukkah dish because they are fried in oil, commemorating the oil that miraculously provided light for eight days. Luckily, Jewish restaurants and delis frequently serve latkes year round, so the dish can be enjoyed at any season. They are also celebrated as the means by which Judith of Holofernes was able to put the Assyrian leader into a deep sleep, and thus was able to behead him. The Assyrians ended their siege because of the death of their leader.
Naturally, latkes could not have been composed of potatoes in ancient times, as potatoes are a New World food. Instead, it is thought that they were made of grated cheese bound with a bit of egg, and then fried. A salty cake such as this, along with an ample supply of wine, would certainly have caused any man, Assyrian or otherwise, to feel sleepy.
Some traditionalists argue that at Hanukkah, cheese and not potato latkes should be served. However, the introduction of the potato to Europe forever changed the dish. Most often, ancient recipes containing cheese are now forsaken in preference to those established in the 18th century.
The name is of Yiddish origin, and may have come from either Germany or Russia. As Jews immigrated to the US, so did the tradition of preparing latkes. Many families now prepare these pancakes from recipes over 100 years old. Therefore, even though they are not prepared as in ancient times, potato latkes have a rich history as well.
Typically, latkes are prepared by grating raw potatoes, usually russets as they have a high starch value. Eggs, salt, and sometimes a bit of green onion are added to the potatoes and lightly mixed. The batter may sit in the refrigerator for a while to allow the starch and eggs to hold the ingredients together. Next, the mix is patted into patties, usually approximately 2 inches (5.08 cm) in diameter. There are those who prepare larger latkes, but these can sometimes fall apart during the cooking and turning process, so smaller cakes may be a good choice for beginners.
Once formed, the latkes are fried in heated oil until they are golden brown on each side. The pancakes may then be patted dry to remove excess oil. They are usually served hot, and may be accompanied with both applesauce and sour cream. Hot latkes are preferable to cooled pancakes, as cooler pancakes will taste oilier.
Though bound in tradition, there are newer recipes that suggest a number of additions to the latkes. Chefs have prepared them by adding grated carrots, ginger, or a mixture of sweet and savory spices. Sweet latkes with vanilla and cinnamon make an appealing dessert. However prepared, these crunchy pancakes are a delicious connection to the past.