Festival of lights yields a festival of fried potato goodness in Brooklyn

Chef Alex Raij of Txikito. (Leah Koenig)
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Leah Koenig

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If matzo balls are the proverbial nice old lady of Jewish cuisine (warm, squishy and endlessly nurturing), then latkes—the golden, lacy-edged potato pancakes eaten during Hanukkah—are the enchanting ingenue. And last night at the third annual Latke Fest and Cook-Off held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the ingenues were out in full force, holding court amid hundreds of fork-wielding attendees in all of their shimmering, oil-drenched glory.

Co-sponsored by Great Performances Catering, City Winery and Edible Brooklyn, the Latke Fest featured 16 celebrated New York chefs offering unique takes on the classic Hanukkah dish. Not surprisingly, their creations reflected the city’s playful and decidedly global palate. Noah Bernamoff and Rachel Cohen of Brooklyn’s Montreal-style deli-restaurant Mile End paired their latkes and applesauce with duck pastrami and gribenes (cracklings) in a nod to Old World flavors. Meanwhile, The Plaza Hotel’s Jack Kiggens opted for a foie gras-crowned latke, and Thad Davis from Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center, who said that his holiday celebrations are “all about family and barbecue,” topped sweet potato latkes with hickory-smoked brisket, homemade barbecue sauce, coleslaw and paper-thin slices of fried jalapeno.

While most of the chefs in attendance celebrated the latke’s traditional savory side (and many piled meat on top of them), a handful of the latkes tended towards the dessert end of the spectrum. Food Network personality and master pastry chef Ron Ben-Israel offered parsnip and potato latkes with a cap of torched sugar brûlée, served with a cranberry-orange sauce and baked applesauce. Nearby, Alex Raij of Basque restaurant Txikito paired classic potato latkes with rose-scented quince sauce, tangy kaymak (cultured cream), and a sprinkling of black nigella seeds. (Next year, Raij and her partner Eder Montero will launch La Vara, a restaurant celebrating the Moorish and Jewish heritage in Spanish cuisine.)

Some chefs, like Mark Spangenthal of Kutsher’s Tribeca, highlighted the latke’s sophisticated side with a mixture of chanterelle, maitake and black trumpet mushrooms and a dollop of herbed ricotta cheese. Others kept things deliciously simple. Bill Telepan of Manhattan’s Telepan, for example, kept an eye on tradition by topping his potato and celery root latkes with a sour cream accented by grated green apple and lemon juice.

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In each case, the participating chefs’ latke riffs were part of a long history of eating fried foods during the eight-day festival of lights. In the Hanukkah story, the Maccabees, victorious in their revolt against the Syrian-Greeks to reclaim the defiled temple in Jerusalem, only had enough oil to rededicate the temple’s menorah for one night, but the oil miraculously lasted for eight days. So perhaps the lesson in terms of latkes is if you’ve actually got enough oil for frying, break out the frying pan and go wild.

Robb Gareau from Great Performances catering. Latke duo: The 99%-er (beef hotdog in a latke bun served with Guldens mustard or ketchup) and the 1%-er (latke topped with quail egg, creme fraiche and caviar)The original latkes (the name stems from the Ukrainian word for fritter) were actually made of a soft white cheese, not potatoes, and were typically fried in butter or olive oil. According to Gil Marks’ The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (Wiley, 2010), it wasn’t until the late 18th century that Eastern European and German Jews began to trust the humble New World vegetable enough to begin featuring it into their holiday foods. The switch had everything to do with seasonality. During the cold winter months, schmaltz (rendered chicken or goose fat) was more readily available for frying than butter or oil. Kosher laws prohibit the mixing of meat and dairy, which rendered schmaltz-fried cheese latkes an impossibility. Meanwhile potatoes, which grew easily and stored well through the winter, were quickly becoming a staple of Jewish peasant cuisine and offered a hearty, warming substitute pancake for the Hanukkah table (and could be fried in delicious schmaltz). The same seasonal logic applies the famous latke topper: applesauce, which is made from winter’s most storage-friendly fruit.

Latkes arrived in America with Jewish immigrants in the mid-19th century. They remained at first just a Hanukkah staple, but eventually turned up in Jewish deli menus and were thereby introduced to the wider New York and American consciousness. In recent years, the latke has enjoyed something of a culinary revival. They regularly appear as an hors d'oeuvre at upscale events, usually under the guise of “potato pancake” and lavishly topped with crème fraiche, caviar or smoked salmon. And from 1995 to 2001, the James Beard House in New York City pioneered it’s own Latke Lover’s Cook-Off, which also featured the latke stylings of renowned chefs.

Some two hours and 6,400 latkes into last night’s event, it was time to crown a winner. The panel of judges, which included former New York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton, Edible Brooklyn editor Rachel Wharton, and Brooklyn’s favorite Jewish politician, Borough President Marty Markowitz, awarded top honors to Jason Weiner’s Manhattan restaurant, Almond. His leading latke came smothered in goat yogurt and topped with smoked bluefish; a sublime, one-bite tribute to Hanukkah’s favorite pancake.

Note: The following recipes were provided by the chefs participating in the Latke Festival and Cook-Off, and have not been retested by Capital New York.

“It’s All About the Latke, Latke”
Tim Sullivan, BAMcafe

1 lb russet potatoes, shredded
6 ounces shredded celery root (about 3/4 cup)
1 egg
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 ounce minced onion (about 2 tablespoons)
1 ounce chopped chives (about 2 tablespoons)
kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
1 cup ghee (clarified butter)

1. Preheat a large cast iron skillet over medium heat. Combine all ingredients except ghee in a large bowl and mix until well combined. Form into 1 1/2 inch patties.
2. Add the ghee to the skillet and carefully drop latkes into the pan with about 1 inch of space between each one. Cook two minutes per side, or until golden. Remove and let drain on paper towel. Salt immediately after cooking, while still hot.
3. Serve with: smoked salmon, red wine poached pears, or your favorite topping.

Beet Latkes with Almond Brittle and Goat Cheese
Beth Brown, Mae Mae Cafe

For latkes:

1 lb thinly shredded red beet (squeezed in towel to remove liquid)
2 eggs
1 cup all purpose flour
zest of one orange
salt and pepper to taste
Vegetable oil for frying
Softened goat cheese for serving

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and insert a baking sheet. Meanwhile, heat a medium skillet over medium high heat. Mix together all ingredients except oil and goat cheese, and stir well to combine.
2. Add enough oil to generously coat the bottom of the pan. Form latkes into 2-inch patties and place in hot skillet. Sear one side until golden then flip, 1-2 minutes per side.
3. Place seared latkes in oven and allow to cook until crispy and beets are cooked through, 5-7 minutes. Serve topped with a small dollop of goat cheese and a piece of almond brittle (see below)

For almond brittle:

4 cups sugar
juice and zest of two oranges
1 cup marcona almonds, chopped fine
1/2 cup fresh rosemary, chopped
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons allspice
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
sea salt and cracked black pepper

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Add sugar to a large saucepan and heat over medium-low until a candy thermometer reads 180 degrees. Remove from heat and let mixture cool slightly. Add orange juice and zest, almonds, rosemary, kosher salt, allspice and cayenne and stir to combine.
2. Pour mixture in a thin layer over an oven-safe, non-stick mat set on a rimmed baking sheet. Place baking sheet in oven and cook until sugar is very thin.
3. Remove from oven; season with sea salt and black pepper to taste. Allow to cool completely, then break brittle into pieces.