It's traditional on the first night of Passover for the youngest child to ask, "What makes this night different from all others?" At Penny Rich's house in Chapel Hill, this year the question could be recast for Hanukkah as, "What gives with the latkes?"
Rich, a personal chef and caterer, usually hosts at least one LotsaLatkes party annually at her home; last year, so many people wanted to come that she cooked hundreds of crispy potato pancakes on two consecutive nights. Her large kitchen was filled with friends, family and neighbors—few of them Jewish, but all of them taking in the show and waiting for their turn to grab the traditional Hanukkah treats while they were still sizzling hot.
"It smells like latkes around here for weeks after Hanukkah is over," Rich says as she deeply inhales the aroma of onion-infused oil outside her front door. "When we have the party, everyone goes home smelling like a greasy diner."
Between Hanukkah falling early this year and Rich recently being sworn in to her new role as an Orange County commissioner, she decided she was just too farshmayet—crazy busy—to host a big bash this holiday season. But she agreed to share her latke-making stories and secrets with the INDY at a private demonstration in her kitchen, overseen by her mother, Jacky Rich.
"I learned to make latkes from my grandmother, not my mother," Rich says as her mother, looking like she just deplaned from Boca perfectly coiffed and wearing a bedazzled denim blouse, rolls her eyes.
"I don't cook anymore," says Jacky Rich. "I was never that kind of grandma. I'm no bubby and I'm fine with that. Anyway, why should I cook when she's so good at it?"
Given the diverse clientele of Rich's catering business, called Rich Penny, it's little surprise that she's dabbled in making nontraditional latkes. Last year she made some with curried sweet potatoes and crunchy mustard seeds. However, for their own holiday celebrations, both chef and mother are suckers for the deeply flavored basic potato recipe with sides of applesauce and sour cream.
"I made them once with spinach, but it had not a thing to do with Hanukkah," says her mother, waving off the memory as if a bad dream. "The way grandma made them is best."
While grandma grated potatoes and onions by hand, Rich uses her food processor to make simple work of what was once an ordeal. "I always remember my grandmother grating her knuckles," she says. "It wasn't potato latkes unless there was some sort of bloodshed."
"You want to drain them well to pull away the starch, no?" her mother asks.
"No, mom. You want to drain the water but keep the starch. It helps to hold them together," Rich says, gesturing with her hand as if marking a scoreboard. "There, the first mother-daughter disagreement."
Her mother sniffs. "You should turn that one over," she says.
Rich says the only required equipment for making perfect latkes is a heavy-bottom pan. "You're going to be frying in oil for a long time, so a good pan is important so the latkes don't burn," she says. "I love cast iron because it's nonstick, but as long as you keep the oil at an even temperature, it's all good.
"Of course, it's still going to smoke. I don't have a vent over my cooktop so I constantly set off the smoke alarm," she adds as a faint haze begins to gather. "I have no qualms about it. Comes with the territory."
Rich recommends that latke makers use matzo meal instead of flour to give the mixture body. "It's more coarse, and you don't get that raw taste from the flour," she says. "I also add salt to the mixture to make sure it's evenly seasoned. You can add more at the end, but I like to know each bite tastes good."
"Oh, Penny, this really is good," Jacky Rich says as she savors her first steaming bite. "It doesn't need a thing on it. Perfect."
"It's funny. They're simple enough to make any time, but I only make them at Hanukkah," Rich says. "It keeps them special."
"It's like pumpkin pie," Jacky Rich says as she reaches for another. "Who makes that in summer?"
Another essential bit of advice: Don't be skimpy with the oil. Hanukkah is not a time for counting calories.
"Some people try to cook latkes with this," Rich says, holding up a can of vegetable oil spray. "Seriously? That won't make a latke anyone wants to eat."
Rich says she always enjoys going a little overboard at Hanukkah because "it's one of the few Jewish holidays that's about happiness and joy due to all the things that transpired," she says of the holiday, which commemorates the victory of the Maccabbees over an invading Syrian army and the subsequent rededication of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. "It's like: They tried to kill us, they had a war, we won; let's eat."
Makes about 30
5 lbs. baking potatoes
6 eggs, slightly beaten
1/2 cup matzo meal
2 Tbsp. parsley, chopped
2-3 tsp. salt
1-2 tsp. pepper
Canola oil, for frying
Old cast-iron frying pan
Sides: fresh applesauce, fresh grated horseradish mixed with sour cream, plain sour cream
Peel and quarter onions. Place in a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse a few times until the onions are chopped. Remove to very large mixing bowl. Return the processor bowl to the machine and fit it with the shredding disc.
Wash potatoes well and send through the feed tube, emptying the shredded potatoes in a colander over the sink. Repeat until all the potatoes are shredded. (If you don't have a processor you can shred the potatoes on a box grater like my bubby used to do, but make sure not to cut yourself like my bubby also used to do.)
Remove a handful or so of the potatoes and place them in a clean dishtowel. Squeeze all the liquid out over a mixing bowl, and add the potatoes to the onions. Repeat until all the potatoes are drained. Pour the water from the potatoes out but retain the potato starch. Add eggs, matzo meal, parsley, starch, salt and pepper to the potatoes. There is no other way to mix this but with your hands. Let the mixture stand for 10 minutes.
Pre-heat oven to 250 degrees. Place 1/4 cup oil in a cast-iron fry pan. Get it real hot before adding spoonfuls of potato. Lower the heat and brown the latkes, about 5 minutes per side. Remove the latkes to a baking tray covered with paper towels or a brown paper bag to drain any additional oil. After the latkes have drained, place them on a wire rack on a baking tray and then in the oven to stay warm. Repeat until all the potatoes are used, adding oil as needed.
If there are any latkes left over (not a chance in my house), place them on a baking tray in the freezer. Once they are frozen, you can store them in a plastic container with parchment paper between layers. Reheat in the oven, toaster oven or hot fry pan. You can microwave them but they will not retain the crispy goodness.