Tonight marks the first night of the eight-day extravaganza known as Hanukkah. Break out your dreidels, get the menorah ready and most importantly, prepare to eat latkes until you burst. Let the Festival of Lights begin.
Speaking of latkes, they're just delightful, aren't they? These potato pancakes of crispy, greasy goodness are a Hanukkah staple. But just because something is a major part of a holiday doesn't mean we know too much about it. Behold, here's everything you need to know about the latke, from its origins to how to make the perfect potato pancake.
Latkes weren't always a part of Hanukkah
Oil is an essential part of the holiday because in the story of Hanukkah, the Maccabees, who fought to free Jerusalem from the Syrian-Greek King Antiochus in 168 B.C., only had enough oil to keep the temple's menorah lit for one night. However, the menorah remained lit for eight days, which was a miracle. Through the years, Jews celebrated this miracle during Hanukkah by using recipes heavy in oil.
However, traditional Hanukkah foods were mainly dairy, and the latke is said to be derived from an Italian pancake recipe made with ricotta cheese. Rabbi Kalonymus ben Kalonymus was the first to link potato pancakes to Hanukkah in a poem some time around the 14th century. After the Jews were exiled from Sicily in 1492, they introduced the potato pancake recipe to the Jews of northern Italy, and it naturally became a Hanukkah dish because it combined two traditional types of food, fried and dairy. It wasn't until the 1800s that the latke, which is a Yiddish word, became a potato dish in the hands of Russian and Polish villagers. For Eastern European Jews in the winter, potatoes were relatively inexpensive and accessible. And so the latke as we know it today was born.
Try these tricks to make the best latkes
The best latkes are the ones that have just the right amount of greasiness and crispiness while still being sort of cake-y in the middle. One way to ensure you have the crispiest latkes is to use the type of potatoes with the most starch, such as Russets. The Kitchn has a great tutorial on how to maximize the starch while you're cooking. In the tutorial, one key trick to keeping your latkes starchy is to add the starch you wring out of the potatoes back into the potatoes before you fry them. There are many other tips and tricks for cooking the best latkes around the Internet, but some other good methods are keeping the number of latkes you fry together small, so put about four or five in the pan at a time. Also, be sure to use a heavy cast iron skillet or stainless steel pan to more evenly distribute the heat.
The big debate over latkes
If you think latkes are the undisputed champions of Jewish food, think again. Hamantaschen lovers of the world want their moment in the sun, too. Since 1946, the University of Chicago has held The Latke-Hamantash Debate every year where Nobel Prize winners and University presidents alike use history, economics and science to give their case for why latkes are the best or why hamantaschen, a triangular-shaped pastry served during the holiday of Purim, should be crowned the winner. This year's debate was held on Nov. 25, 2014, but unfortunately, they could not come to a conclusion as to which treat reigns supreme. Hopefully, they can resolve this important issue next year.
Image: Tim Sackton / Flickr