I wish I could say that my potato latkes originate from a family recipe passed down from generation to generation, but this is not the case. Greasy and soggy is how I remember the potato pancakes that my grandmother made. What made them so bad? Too much flour? A heavy hand on the onion? Her embrace of the electric blender, rather than hand-grating the potatoes? Thankfully, I was steered toward a better potato pancake during a summer working at Bette’s Oceanview Diner on Fourth Street in Berkeley, California.
I worked as a dishwasher, and for 10 hours a day (12 at first, until I picked up speed), cleaned every plate, pot, and pan dirtied in a day’s work. During crunch times, I was inevitably called upon to re-supply the cooks with huge cartons of eggs, or dump crates of oranges into the juicing machine.
Once in a while, to the call of “Pot Pan” (Bette’s shop-talk for potato pancake) yelled back from the grill, I was pressed into action to shred potatoes to order for plates of Bette’s potato pancakes. The pancakes were based on the Kartoffelpuffer, a German potato pancake that was a childhood food of Bette’s husband (and Bette's Diner co-owner), Manfred Kroening.
Made mainly of shredded potatoes, with a small amount of minced onion, and just enough egg and flour to bind the potatoes together, these potato pancakes were a revelation. The flat nests of potato strands had an incredibly crunchy exterior, yet remained soft inside. Golden brown, crispy, and (relatively) grease-less, Bette’s latkes were in complete contrast to the ones most of us grew up with.
Rules of the Game
Bette's basic recipe is available here online, but here are some additional tips to ensure “Pot Pan” success:
1. Mise en place. Just as in the restaurant, have all of the ingredients ready to go before the potato shredding commences (peel the potatoes, mince the onions, and get the egg mixture ready [see #2]). To prevent the potatoes from browning, they may be peeled in advance and kept covered with water, but once they are shredded, you must work fast.
2. Beat the eggs and flour together. This is how it was done in the restaurant, despite what the recipe indicates.
3. The miracle of the oil. When frying, use a generous amount of oil. I use peanut oil, which will not burn during the cooking process.
4. The miracle of the food processor. A hand grater works perfectly well, but you can also save time, and your knuckles, by using a food processor with the grating blade.
5. Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. Squeeze as much liquid out of the shredded potatoes as possible, pressing them against the side of the bowl to release their starchy water.
6. Serve immediately. Though I’ve never tried to keep them warm in the oven, I fear that this might lead to a fall-off in crispiness.
On the Side
Applesauce and sour cream are the classic accompaniments to potato pancakes. For a spectacular condiment, try skipping the jarred applesauce and making your own.
In a large pot, melt three to four tablespoons of butter and a quarter cup of sugar (to taste). When the butter and sugar turn a light golden color, add eight to ten apples that have been peeled, cored, and cut into small cubes. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and cook the apples under medium heat until soft (20 to 30 minutes), and all of the liquid has reduced. This amount of apples will produce approximately 1.5 quarts of applesauce. The applesauce may be made in advance. Serve at room temperature.
BEFORE AND AFTER Crispy potato pancakes, courtesy of Bette's Oceanview Diner, from griddle to platter.