Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Latkes and Brownie Pudding: It's Hanukkah Time

(Yes, I painted this menorah. No, I'm not a fine arts major.)

Unfortunately for various Jewish clubs on campus, Hanukkah fell during winter break this year. Fortunately for me, this signified eight homemade meals, a welcome respite from dining halls. To commemorate the third night of Hanukkah, my family invited my close friend’s family for a festive dinner. My Greek friend and her family took their maiden Hanukkah voyage. While my dad produced the excellent spice rubbed chicken main course, my sister, cousin and I took the lead on dessert and the Hanukkah staple of latkes.

First, we made dessert. We have two ovens in my house, but the dessert we chose bakes for an hour so we wanted to clear the space for other items (keeping latkes warm and roasting chickens).

One of my favorite Food Network personalities is Ina Garten. Watching her show is so calming, and she and Jeffrey are adorable. I would love to attend a dinner party at her beautiful Hamptons house. Several years ago, I saw her make brownie pudding and had to try it. Well, let’s just say this was not our first time preparing it (and it always gets rave reviews).

Here’s the recipe from Ina Garten and Food Network with my notes in bold:

Brownie Pudding

1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus extra for buttering the dish (melt this when you begin so it has time to cool)
4 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup good cocoa powder (Ina always asks for good ingredients, just get unsweetened. I like Trader Joe’s brand)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
Seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean (Cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape the seeds out using a knife going in one direction. You may have to do it twice to get most of them out. You should get a little pile of seeds. Vanilla beans are expensive so you can substitute vanilla extract)
1 tablespoon framboise liqueur, optional (I never use this)
Vanilla ice cream, for serving

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Lightly butter a 2-quart (9 by 12 by 2-inch) oval baking dish. Melt the 1/2 pound of butter and set aside to cool.

(Don't forget to sift; cocoa powder can be lumpy.)

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the eggs and sugar on medium-high speed for 5 to 10 minutes, until very thick and light yellow. Meanwhile, sift the cocoa powder and flour together and set aside.

(Action shot.)

When the egg and sugar mixture is ready, reduce the speed to low and add the vanilla seeds, framboise, if using, and the cocoa powder and flour mixture. Mix only until combined. With mixer still on low, slowly pour in the cooled butter and mix again just until combined.

(Our two pan set up (mix and match your own pans).)

(How good does that look? The batter's delicious (but you didn't hear that here).)

Pour the brownie mixture into the prepared dish and place it in a larger baking pan. Look around your cabinets to find two pans that fit together. We use a normal cake pan inside a roasting pan (you want something kind of deep for the water). Add enough of the hottest tap water to the pan to come halfway up the side of the dish and bake for exactly 1 hour. Pouring the hot water can be tricky, but it’s much easier if you use a liquid measuring cup that’s easy to pour from. I tried to use a mug once and water spilled everywhere. A cake tester inserted 2 inches from the side will come out 3/4 clean. The center will appear very under-baked; this dessert is between a brownie and a pudding, a.k.a. it’s very delicious.

Allow to cool and serve with vanilla ice cream.

As the brownie pudding baked, we moved on to latkes. Potato latkes are eaten on Hanukkah to remember the miracle of the oil (oil that was supposed to last for one day lasted for eight). This year we made three types of latkes: zucchini, sweet potato, and the classic potato. The formula varies slightly for each variety. We made each batter before we started cooking to save time, grating the main vegetable with a grater attachment in the food processor, which sped everything up. Cooking latkes gets very hot and smoky, so we made them and placed them in the oven on “keep warm” so we could air out the house before our guests arrived.

I got the recipe for zucchini latkes from one of my favorite food blogs, smitten kitchen. She posted it in August, but that’s not important. You can read about it (and see her gorgeous photos here).

Here’s the recipe, again with notes in bold:

Zucchini Fritters
Adapted a bit from Simply Recipes

Yield: About 10 2 1/2 inch fritters (we doubled this)

1 pound (about 2 medium) zucchini
1 teaspoon coarse or Kosher salt, plus extra to taste
2 scallions, split lengthwise and sliced thin
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Olive or another oil of your choice, for frying

To serve (optional) (highly recommend this topping. We served it with all three latkes)
1 cup sour cream or plain, full-fat yogurt
1 to 2 tablespoon lemon juice (This is about a half a lemon. Save the other half to keep the potatoes from browning later)
1/4 teaspoon lemon zest
Pinches of salt
1 small minced or crushed clove of garlic

Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Have a baking sheet ready.

Trim ends off zucchini and grate them either on the large holes of a box grater or, if you have one, using the shredding blade of a food processor. The latter is my favorite as I’m convinced it creates the coarsest and most rope-like strands and frankly, I like my fritters to look like mops.

In a large bowl, toss zucchini with 1 teaspoon coarse salt and set aside for 10 minutes. Wring out the zucchini in one of the following ways: pressing it against the holes of a colander with a wooden spoon to extract the water, squeezing out small handfuls at a time, or wrapping it up in a clean dishtowel or piece of cheese cloth and wringing away. You’ll be shocked (I was!) by the amount of liquid you’ll lose, but this is a good thing as it will save the fritters from sogginess. (Wringing out AS MUCH LIQUID AS POSSIBLE is essential to make any type of latke crispy.)

Return deflated mass of zucchini shreds to bowl. Taste and if you think it could benefit from more salt (most rinses down the drain), add a little bit more; we found 1/4 teaspoon more just right. Stir in scallions, egg and some freshly ground black pepper. In a tiny dish, stir together flour and baking powder, then stir the mixture into the zucchini batter.

In a large heavy skillet — cast iron is dreamy here — heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Drop small bunches of the zucchini mixture onto the skillet only a few at a time so they don’t become crowded and lightly nudge them flatter with the back of your spatula. Cook the fritters over moderately high heat until the edges underneath are golden, about 3 to 4 minutes. If you find this happening too quickly, reduce the heat to medium. Flip the fritters and fry them on the other side until browned underneath again, about 2 to 3 minutes more. Drain briefly on paper towels then transfer to baking sheet and then into the warm oven until needed. Repeat process, keeping the pan well-oiled, with remaining batter. I like to make sure that the fritters have at least 10 minutes in the oven to finish setting and getting extra crisp.

(Zesting up some sour cream.)

For the topping, if using, stir together the sour cream, lemon juice, zest, salt and garlic and adjust the flavors to your taste. Dollop on each fritter before serving. We sprinkled some paprika on top to differentiate the jazzed up sour cream from regular. It also added a nice color. These fritters are also delicious with a poached or fried egg on top, trust me.

Do ahead: These fritters keep well, either chilled in the fridge for the better part of a week and or frozen in a well-sealed package for months. When you’re ready to use them, simply spread them out on a tray in a 325 degree oven until they’re hot and crisp again.

(The final toppings result!)

Zucchini batter done, we moved to the potato and sweet potato versions, once again using our grater attachment for the food processor. I remember grating potatoes by hand for latkes when I was younger and let me tell you, it takes forever. My dad always jokes that that version includes some skin (and he’s not talking about potato skin).

Our recipe for latkes comes from Jewish Family Celebrations: The Sabbath, Festivals, and Ceremonies. We make "Aunt Tissy’s Latkes," found on page 98, notes in bold:

Aunt Tissy’s Latkes

Yield: ~12 latkes

6 potatoes (we used the same recipe for sweet potatoes)
1 onion
2 eggs, beaten
¼ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon pepper
½ teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons flour (to thicken)
oil (You’ll need a lot)


(Sweet potatoes nearly ready to fry.)

Peel and grate the potatoes and onion. Add the beaten eggs to the grated vegetables. Add the rest of the ingredients except the oil and mix well. Drop by tablespoons onto hot oil. Shape the potato mixture into round, flat pancakes. In hot oil, fry on both sides a few at a time until they are crisp. Drain well on paper towels. (We put them in the oven on keep warm in paper towel-lined cookie sheets.)

(Latkes frying away.)

Batters made, we got to frying. You need to watch the latkes and use oil liberally. It gets smoky and hot, but the result is worth it.

(The "Latke" spatula was a Hanukkah gift this year.)

When we sat down to dinner, we tasted the sweetness of the sweet potatoes, the crispness of the potatoes and the freshness of the zucchini, topped with sour cream or applesauce. Latkes are a tad labor intensive so they tend to be annual food. Making different types is time consuming but oh so worth it. (And there’s no law declaring them an exclusively Hanukkah food; make latkes in March, why not).

(A decadent red velvet cake.)

(The finished brownie pudding!)

No one had any complaints about the rich chocolaty dessert (or the red velvet cake our guests brought). Brownie pudding had a flaky crust and a creamy chocolate interior. As Ina often says, “How bad can that be?”

Our Hanukkah feast was satisfying and delicious. A mix of new and old recipes combined into the perfect winter spread. We also may have gained about five pounds.

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