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Hanukkah: The miracle of using the right oil

Published December 1, 2010 10:36 am

Frying • Chef finds there's only one way to reach crisp perfection.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A few years ago, prolific cookbook author Mollie Katzen politely sautéed latkes for her family in a desperate attempt to make this Hanukkah favorite lower in fat.

Low fat latkes? Isn't that an oxymoron?

"They were downright depressing," she lamented. "Starchy, soggy and greasy! I remember latkes that were whisper thin and wildly crisp."

You can't blame the health-minded chef for trying. After all, the award- winning author has sold 5 million cookbooks including her ground-breaking Moosewood Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 1977), which introduced the concept that nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables and grains could be delicious.

In all of her eight books, rarely does Katzen give instructions for frying.

When it came to making latkes, however, she finally had to concede, "There's no way to get a potato pancake that's perfectly crisp unless you fry it. And, if it's not crisp, what's the point?"

During the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah, which this year begins at sundown Wednesday, Jews are mandated to eat fried foods to celebrate the Miracle of the Oil. As the story goes, 2,000 years ago the temple in Jerusalem was defiled and the eternal light was snuffed out. When the Jewish soldiers, led by Judah Maccabeus, came to rededicate their temple they could find only one tiny cask of pure olive oil to return its flame. This paltry amount of oil, which should have lasted just a few hours, kept the menorah burning for eight days. Because of that miracle, Jews light candles every night for the eight days of Hanukkah.

Today, there are a dozen different oils available for cooking. Some are better for frying because they withstand high temperatures while others lose beneficial properties if they are heated at all.

"Culinarily, if I am sautéing vegetables, I use olive oil," says Katzen. But her favorite oil for frying at high temperatures — which is how you cook latkes — is high-oleic safflower oil.

"I never made latkes that were crisp enough until I discovered it," she says. "Crisp doesn't begin to describe them. You can hear someone bite into one from two rooms away!"

High-oleic safflower oil is high in monounsaturated fats — the good kind — and has a mild flavor and odor, making it a good medium to carry flavors and seasonings. The oil can be heated to a very high temperature, making it perfect for frying.

"The hotter the oil, the more likely the latkes will be light and crisp instead of heavy and soggy," Katzen said. However, it is possible to overheat the oil.

Katzen said if the oil starts to smoke it is no longer good and you should start the frying process over with new oil.

Today, Katzen's latkes are crisp, but not necessarily healthier. How does Katzen deal with that?

"We don't eat latkes for their nutritional properties. They're a treat — fun to make, delicious, just don't try turning them into something they're not," she says, with a laugh. "Eat them, enjoy them; just don't gorge." —

Mollie's ultimate potato latkes

For a delicious variation, replace up to half the potato with grated sweet potato. Potatoes may be peeled, partially peeled or left intact. The batter lasts for several days if kept in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator. Leftover potato pancakes can be reheated in an ungreased, preheated skillet over medium heat.

1 1/2 pounds potatoes, any kind

1 medium onion, about 6 ounces

1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour or rice flour

1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs, beaten

High-oleic safflower oil for frying


Sour cream or thick yogurt


Mixed fruit compote (see recipe below)

Use a hand grater— or the fine grating attachment of a food processor—to grate the potato and onion together.

Transfer grated vegetables to a medium-sized bowl, and sprinkle in flour and salt. Add eggs and stir until thoroughly combined.

Place a large, deep skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium heat for about 3 minutes. Add enough oil to make a 1/8-inch-deep pool in the pan. Wait another minute or two to heat the oil. When the oil is hot enough to instantly and dramatically sizzle a bread crumb, scoop batter into the pan using a large spoon or a 1/4-cup measure. Go slow, so you don't splash hot oil. Spread each pancake out so it is very thin.

Fry pancakes on each side about 7 or 8 minutes, or until deep golden and crisp all over.

Line a platter with a triple thickness of paper towels. Remove pancakes from the pan, using a slotted metal spatula. Hold each over the pan for a moment to drain excess oil. Place pancakes in a single layer on the prepared platter for a few minutes before serving. There should be plenty of oil left in the pan to fry the remaining batter. If the oil smokes spill it out and start over with new oil.

Serve latkes hot or warm, with sour cream or thick yogurt, applesauce or fruit compote.

Servings • 12 to 14 medium sized latkes

Source: Adapted from Mollie Katzen's Sunlight Café (Hyperion) —

Mixed fruit compote

2 pounds apples and pears, cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks (peeling is optional)

1 to 2 tablespoons lemon juice

A dash or two of salt (optional)

1 cup dried fruit such as raisins, cranberries, apricots, cherries or pineapple

Honey or pure maple syrup to taste, optional

Spices such as cinnamon, cloves, allspice, ginger, cardamom or anise to taste, optional



Toasted walnuts

Place fruit in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Cover and cook slowly, checking in every 5 minutes or so to give it a stir. Add small amounts of water as needed.

After about 20 minutes, add the lemon juice, salt, and dried fruit. Cover and cook another 10 minutes or so, then taste. Mixture can be left as is. Or it can be sweetened a bit with honey or pure maple syrup and spices. Mixture can be cooked longer and mashed. You can cook it even softer and mash it, or keep it textured.

Serve at any temperature, plain or topped with yogurt and toasted nuts.

Serving • 6

Source: From Mollie Katzen's "Sunlight Café" (Hyperion) —

Where to find the good fat

Monounsaturated • found in olive, canola and sunflower oils, nuts, seeds, natural-style nut butters and avocado. They are tied to cholesterol regulation and promote healthy cardiovascular function.

Polyunsaturated • found in soybean, safflower and cottonseed oil, legumes including soybeans and soy products, fatty fish such as salmon and tuna. This fat is also good for healthy cardiovascular function and cholesterol regulation.

Essential Fatty Acids • also known as Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. They can be found in firm-fleshed, fatty types of fish such as tuna, salmon and sardines. You can also take fish oil or flax seed oil, flax seeds, walnuts, soybean, canola, borage, and evening primrose oil. They facilitate overall good health strengthening our cell structure and reducing the risk of heart attacks and strokes. —

History of Hanukkah

The Orem Library will offer a presentation on the history and significance of Hanukkah today, at 7 p.m. Professor Alex Stecker, a member of Utah Valley University's history and political science department, will discuss the Syrian battle for Jerusalem and the miracle of the oil. He also will share the meaning behind the menorah, latkes and other symbols associated with the celebration of this Jewish holiday. The free discussion takes place in the storytelling wing of the library, 58 N. State St. For details call, 801-229-7050.






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