A Thoroughly Modern Latke
Around this time of year, in an age-old tradition that connects Jews through the centuries, the latke makers of the world start doing their hand exercises. There’s a lot of grating, squeezing, and flipping to be done for the Celebration of Light, and only the best cooks will hit the trifecta of latke perfection: crispy, fluffy, not too greasy.
But what if there were no grating? No squeezing? Just a simple recipe, the majority of which could be done not just days but months before, with a guarantee you’ll hit perfection every time? Enter Nathan Myhrvold and his team of culinary wizards, creators of the six-volume, high-science mega-reference Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, and this year’s more accessible volume, Modernist Cuisine at Home. Their latest development, no centrifuge required, is the modern latke. Sounds about as oxymoronic as jumbo shrimp? Perhaps, but by using ingredients you can find at your local grocery store, you too can enjoy the most recent evolutionary leap of the humble potato pancake.
Scott Heimendinger, the director of applied research for the Modernist Cuisine Culinary Lab, used to make latkes with his mother every Hannukah and remembers the process of grating as largely one of “trying to keep the skin on my knuckles.”
But even a perfectly grated batch of potatoes doesn’t guarantee a crisp end product. As Heimendinger explained to me, “you’re battling two forces” with the latke: water and starch. Grated potatoes exude lots of water, an enemy to crispness, which is why wringing them dry is such an important step in the classic recipe. Then, there’s the starch: When potatoes are cooked, their starch gelatinizes. In order to get the crisp exterior of, say, a French fry, many cooks fry twice. The first fry turns the exterior starch into gel, then that dries and crisps during the second dip.
The Modernist Cuisine recipe gets rid of all three of the hurdles of the traditional latke: grating is nixed entirely thanks to a mashed potato filling, which also eliminates the need for draining out extra water. And for a flawlessly crisp exterior, the latke’s exterior is made of a combination of potato starch and instant mashed potato flakes, which have already reached the starch-gel phase. As such, the first fry begets a flawless exterior, no additional trips to the oil necessary. It may not be traditional, but if you like a crispy, golden-brown exterior and a soft, fluffy interior, this is for you.