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Latkes a big part of Hanukkah celebration

Story And Photos By Adriana Janovich The Spokesman-Review

Morgan Morris called dibs on the latke in the back of the pan.

That’s the one she was going to flip. Her brother would have to pick another one.

The siblings – along with their mom and grandma “Bubbie” – stood in front of a large sauté pan, watching four latkes sizzle in hot oil, a symbol of their heritage and an ancient miracle.

Like many members of Spokane’s Jewish community, the Morris family gathers once a year to make their beloved potato pancakes in celebration of Hanukkah. The eight-day festival of lights begins at sundown on Tuesday.

“Latkes are tradition because they are cooked in oil,” said Bubbie, otherwise known as 71-year-old Julie Morris, who learned to make the Hanukkah staple from her mother-in-law. “They’re something you want to pass down. It’s a continuation. It does make it special.”

Recently, she met her grandchildren in the kosher kitchen at Spokane’s Temple Beth Shalom to share the old family recipe. During Hanukkah, however, they usually meet at her house to make latkes at least once – maybe more.

The work – scrubbing, peeling, grating and draining the potatoes, then mixing them with matzo meal or flour, and cooking them in hot oil – is time-consuming but rewarding.

Comforting, filling latkes bring people together. They bring people home.

“I like crunchy latkes – they taste like hash browns – with a little apple sauce and sour cream,” said Bubbie’s daughter-in-law Jen Morris, 43. The most she’s eaten in one sitting is “I don’t know, maybe four.”

Son Jaxon Morris, 12, can consume twice as much. “Probably 10,” he said.

Other than eating them, flipping latkes is 10-year-old Morgan’s favorite part of the process “because it’s fun.”

In general, she said, “It’s really fun to make them because I get to be with my family.”

Hanukkah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew, celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by Syrian Greeks around 164 B.C. After leading the Jewish army to victory and reclaiming the temple, a family known as the Maccabees tried to rekindle the temple’s menorah, or candelabra, required to burn every night throughout the night. But they found only one day’s worth of oil.

It lasted for eight days.

To celebrate the miracle, families light a candle each night for eight nights. They also eat foods fried in oil, like jelly doughnuts and potato pancakes.

Jaxon, who helped flip latkes with his sister, can hardly wait for them to cool enough to handle before digging in with his bare hands.

“I like them plain because they’re, like, crispy, and good,” he said between bites. He’s tried others’ latkes throughout the years and they’re good, too.

But, he said, “I think my grandma makes the best ones.”

There’s no wrong way to make latkes.

“Everybody has their own way of doing it,” said 79-year-old Ethel Grossman, the Queen of Latkes at Temple Beth Shalom, which serves hundreds of potato pancakes at its annual Hanukkah dinner. “We make latkes to remind ourselves of the bravery of the Maccabees who fought against unbelievable odds, against the people who wanted to eliminate the Jewish people.”

Her recipe calls for frying chopped onions before adding them to the batter, which is then also fried. Her other secrets are the seasonings: Morton Nature’s Seasons blend and Spike Gourmet Natural Seasoning.

“Hers is like a gourmet latke,” Morris said.

Dressed up or down, latkes makes for a versatile dish that can be savory or sweet. They’re often served with sour cream, salt and pepper – but can be embellished with fancier toppings like brie, blue cheese, jam or fruit compote, and set upon a bed of bitter greens, like arugula.

While they’re a festive holiday specialty, most latke recipes are fairly simple. Their main ingredients – potatoes and onions – are longtime staples of peasant food in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Their texture depends on whether the potatoes are grated by hand or pureed in a food processor. And ingredients like leeks, cheese, chives, apples and parsnips can be included for additional flavor in more refined versions.

Bubbie’s recipe is basic. It’s been passed down from generation to generation, across borders and oceans, and continued by children and grandchildren, who will in turn carry it on for their offspring.

“It’s homemade,” said grandson Payton Morris, 14. “And it’s made with love.”

Making latkes with three generations at Temple Beth Shalom on Spokane’s South Hill

A video posted by Adriana Janovich (@adrianajanovich) on

Bubbie’s Traditional Latkes

From Julie Morris of Spokane

6 potatoes, scrubbed, peeled and shredded

1/2 onion, ground

3 eggs, beaten

1/4 cup flour or matzo meal

Salt and pepper, to taste

Oil, for cooking

Combine all ingredients in large bowl and mix well. Let sit for about 10 minutes, then drain excess potato liquid.

Heat about 1 inch of oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Carefully spoon potato mixture into hot oil, about ¼ cup per pancake. Do not crowd the pan. Use back of spoon or spatula to flatten latkes, flipping only once. Fry until golden brown and crispy, 3 to 5 minutes per side. Drain on paper towel-lined plate or tray. Repeat with the remaining batter. Serve with sour cream or applesauce or both.

Bubbie’s Cinnamon Applesauce

From Julie Morris of Spokane

This recipe is a favorite among the grandkids, who often opt to garnish their latkes with sour cream in order to eat this sweet and spicy applesauce on its own as a special treat.

“We have it at every Jewish holiday because that’s what they love,” said Morris, who uses only Granny Smith apples in this recipe, adding sugar to taste.

6 to 8 Granny Smith apples

1/2 to 1 cup water, or enough to cover the bottom of the pot with an inch of liquid

1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar

1 tablespoon cinnamon

Core and cut apples into 6 to 8 pieces. Add water to pot, bring to a boil, then add apples and reduce heat to a simmer. Cover and cook until tender. Remove from heat, mash and add sugar to taste while apple mixture is still warm. Stir in cinnamon.

Ethel’s Gourmet Latkes

From Ethel Grossman of Spokane

This recipe is the basis for the potato pancakes served at the Temple Beth Shalom’s annual Hanukkah dinner.

“I guarantee once you start eating them, it’s hard to stop,” Grossman said. “They are best served hot off the pan.”

1 cup onions, chopped and fried

4 potatoes, scrubbed and grated

Pureed combination of 1 raw sweet onion and 1 raw scrubbed, unpeeled potato

1/2 cup matzo meal

4 eggs, beaten with the following seasonings:

1 tablespoon sea salt, or more to taste

1/2 tablespoon pepper, or more to taste

1 teaspoon Morton Nature’s Seasons seasoning blend

1 teaspoon Spike Gourmet Natural Seasoning

Oil, for frying

Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Place mixture in a large colander and drain.

Heat generous amount of oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Spoon potato mixture into hot oil, about ¼ cup per pancake, taking care not to crowd the pan. Fry until golden brown and crispy, 3 to 5 minutes per side. Drain on paper towel-lined plate or tray. Repeat with the remaining batter.

Note: Don’t let the batter sit around too long before using it; it will brown. Latkes can be kept warm on baking sheets in the oven on very low heat.