Elevating the Latke

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Food fest inspires chefs to create unique versions of a Jewish culinary favorite


Potato fritters slathered with crème fraiche and pickled ginger. Delicate medallions dressed with wine-braised oxtail, horseradish sunchoke cream and crispy kale. Croquettes topped with sausage and tangy mustard. Latkes, the simple potato pancakes synonymous with Hanukkah celebrations, have come a long way since ancient times.

At the sixth annual Latke Festival, on December 15 at the Metropolitan Pavilion, New York-based chefs showed off an array of succulent pancakes that put new twists on a revered culinary tradition. From classic potato-and-onion to extravagant stacks of starch, sauce and spices, the latkes symbolized the Jewish festival of Hanukkah with nods to New York City’s multiethnic melting pot.

“We want to push people’s expectations about what Jewish food is,” said Peter Shelsky, the owner, founder and executive chef of Shelsky’s of Brooklyn Smoked Fish and Appetizing.

Presiding over a table laden with small plates, he presented decadent sweet potato and celeriac latkes fried in schmaltz, dressed with chopped liver and a horseradish, cranberry and apple relish. Even with the autumnal garnishes, he said the pancake was the foundation of the dish.

“The latke itself is going to shine,” he said.

Shelsky’s creation highlighted the long tradition of adding cross-cultural touches to the basic latke recipe. Joan Nathan, an authority on Jewish cooking and a judge for Latkefest’s competition, said that latkes have been made out of matzoh meal, wheat, kasha or shredded vegetables for centuries. Some cooks added fruit, meat or sweeteners. Potatoes were a more recent innovation, introduced in Ukraine and Lithuania and brought to America by Jewish immigrants in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

At another cluster of serving tables, Calvin Nguyen, the chef de cuisine at Garden Court Café at the Asia Society, dabbed each latke with a dot of sauce. His vegetarian recipe was inspired by Chinese dim sum—which wasn’t such a big leap, he said. Instead of the traditional potato and onion, his toothsome patties contained shredded daikon and scallion. The spicy slice of pickled pear on top played on applesauce, a common latke garnish.

Jim McDuffee, chef and partner at the French-influenced American restaurant Joseph Leonard, said he’d never made a latke until he moved to New York about 10 years ago. But he had learned to adapt the hash brown recipes of his native Michigan for East Coast palates, evident in his festival offering. The “Tailgate Sunday” comprised a caraway-spiked fritter topped with circles of bratwurst, a dollop of beer mustard and crisp-fried onions.

“It’s what I’d serve at a football-viewing party in my apartment,” McDuffee said.

In contrast, Mae Mae Café’s chef, Batya Goldberg, said she likened the combination of flavors in her latkes to a symphony.

“There has to be a balance. The crispy potato with the creamy crème fraiche, the sweetness of the apple with the brightness of pickled ginger, it’s all there,” Goldberg said.

Jodi Katz, a diner sampling Goldberg’s bite-size croquettes, said the Katchkie Farms pickled ginger was the key.

“There’s a burst of flavor that you don’t get with regular latkes and canned applesauce,” Katz said.

Latke fans made the rounds of more than 24 participating restaurants and beverage companies invited by Great Performances, the event’s organizer. Latkefest raised money for The Sylvia Center, a nonprofit organization that teaches kids about healthy eating, in addition to showcasing mouthwatering food.

Most attendees carried a plate in one hand and a ballot, for recording their favorite latkes, in the other.

After tallying the ballots, a panel of judges chose the critics’ picks. The latke competition ended in a tie between PRINT Restaurant’s “Okinawa Latke,” a Japanese sweet potato and crispy chestnut cake in duck fat with miso crème fraiche and yuzu, and Mae Mae Café’s pickled ginger-topped fritter. Shelsky’s walked away with the audience prize.

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