There's more than one way to top a potato pancake Latke buffet

December 01, 1993|By Faye Levy | Faye Levy,Contributing Writer Los Angeles Times Syndicate

The eight-day Jewish holiday of Hanukkah (this year beginning at sundown Dec. 8) is, in many people's minds, the Festival of Potato Pancakes. These pancakes, or "latkes" as they are called in Yiddish, have become the symbol of the holiday and are a must for any Hanukkah get-together. Parties for family and friends, rather than formal dinners, are the most popular way to celebrate Hanukkah.

The custom of serving fried foods, such as potato pancakes, grew out of the miracle of the oil, the central theme of Hanukkah. Over 2,000 years ago, the Jews drove a foreign army out of Jerusalem and rekindled the eternal light in the Temple with pure oil. Legend relates that only enough ritually clean oil for one day could be found, but it miraculously lasted for eight days, until more could be prepared. To commemorate this event, colorful candles are lighted each night of the holiday.

For children, lighting the candles is an important part of the holiday. My brother and I always took turns selecting our favorite colors of candles, arranging them in the Hanukkah candelabrum called the menorah, and helping our father light them. But I must admit, the best part of the holiday for us, as it is for other children, was getting a gift from our parents just after the lighting of the candles, as well as one or two chocolate coins, known as "Hanukkah gelt" or "Hanukkah money."

We also looked forward to my mother's delicious potato pancakes. Lacy pancakes made of grated potatoes appear to have come to us from Russia, but are now popular Hanukkah treats throughout the United States, Europe and Israel.

Usually potato pancakes are served with sour cream and applesauce. To turn them into an easy-to-serve party dish, prepare a variety of easy toppings for the pancakes and serve them buffet-style in two sections -- one with sweet toppings and one with savory accompaniments. In each section, be sure to have bowls of sour cream and yogurt. For the sweet toppings, set out containers of applesauce, pear compote, chopped nuts, and a mixture of cinnamon and sugar.

Savory accompaniments can include bowls of mushroom ragout, spicy cooked peppers, dill sour cream, yogurt-mint topping or fresh salsa, as well as an assortment of colorful vegetables, including chopped green onions, diced tomatoes and diced cucumbers. If you like, you can follow the lead of trendy restaurants and accompany the pancakes with goat cheese, smoked salmon or caviar.

And don't forget the chocolate coins!

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Lacy potato pancakes are easy to make by grating the potatoes and the onions in a food processor. To make serving the pancakes convenient at a party, saute them ahead of time, refrigerate them and reheat them in a single layer on baking sheets at 450 degrees for a few minutes. This also lets any excess oil escape and the pancakes become crisper.

Potato pancakes

Makes about 15 pancakes, or 4 to 5 servings

4 large potatoes (about 1 1/4 pounds), peeled

1 medium onion, optional

1 egg

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

2 tablespoons flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

about 1/2 cup oil for frying

sour cream, yogurt, applesauce

Grate potatoes and onions, using grating disk of food processor or large holes of grater. Transfer to colander. Squeeze mixture to press out as much liquid as possible. Transfer to bowl. Mix in egg, salt, pepper, flour and baking powder.

Heat 1/2 cup oil in deep, heavy 10- to 12-inch skillet. For each pancake, drop about 2 tablespoons potato mixture into pan. Flatten with back of spoon so each cake is about 2 1/2 to 3 inches in diameter. Fry over medium heat 4 to 5 minutes on each side, or until golden brown and crisp. Turn carefully so oil doesn't splatter. Drain on paper towels. Stir batter before frying each new batch. Add more oil to pan if necessary. Serve pancakes hot, accompanied by sour cream, yogurt, applesauce, cinnamon-sugar, or toppings below.

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Serve this easy topping with any potato pancake. For an extra festive touch, put a dollop of topping on each pancake, then add 1 teaspoon caviar or a few strips of lox.

Dill sour cream

Makes 1 cup

1 cup sour cream or yogurt

1 tablespoon snipped fresh dill

salt, white pepper

Mix sour cream and dill. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve at room temperature.

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This topping adds a Mediterranean touch to potato pancakes.

Yogurt-mint topping

Makes 1 cup

1 cup plain yogurt

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint

1 small clove garlic, finely minced

salt, white pepper

cayenne pepper

Mix yogurt with mint and garlic. Season to taste with salt, pepper and cayenne. Serve at room temperature.

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This richly flavored ragout, accented with cumin and thyme, makes a wonderful topping or accompaniment for potato pancakes.

Israeli mushroom ragout

Makes 6 to 8 servings as topping

1/4 cup olive oil or butter

1 medium onion, chopped

1 pound fairly small mushrooms, quartered

salt, freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon ground cumin

cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

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