Food in Judaism is symbolic, said Ami Bach. For Purim, which falls between February and April, the Jewish community snacks on Hamantash, a triangle-shaped cookie filled with chocolate or fruit. The triangle represents the shape of the hat worn by Haman, a biblical figure who plotted to wipe out the Jewish population.
On Rosh Hashanah, apples are dipped in honey to symbolize a sweet new year.
And on Hanukkah, Jewish tradition is to eat only foods fried in oil to signify the oil that had burned for eight days and nights.
Topped with apple sauce or sour cream, potato latkes remain a traditional Hanukkah favorite. For the past few years, Bach and the sisterhood of the Etz Hayim Synagogue in Derry have teamed together to prepare latkes to sell at the temple’s gift shop before Hanukkah, which this year begins on Wednesday, Dec. 1.
“Buying them at the shop makes things a lot easier,” Bach said. “They can be a pain in the neck to make.”
The synagogue also runs an annual potato latke competition, allowing its congregation to get creative with the holiday staple.
Bach, of Chester, won “Best Looking” latkes a few years back with a recipe for sweet potato latkes topped with caviar and sour cream that she found online. The caviar, she said, went well with the sweet potato but would not likely be a good choice for a white potato latke.
“People have come up with all kinds of crazy ideas for toppings … I just did it because I wanted to be more creative,” Bach said. “People even put chocolate chips in them. Everybody is trying to up the ante, but the traditional ones are really the best.”
Unlike traditional latkes, Bach’s were baked.
“I wanted a healthier version, ” she said.
Traditional potato latkes are made with shredded raw potato (that can be put in a food processor to save time), egg, matzo meal, flour, salt, pepper, onion and oil, mixed together and poured into a frying pan in a pancake-like form. The latke is then fried until “golden brown and greasy,” Bach said. “They’re bad for you but delicious,” she said.
Growing up in New York, Bach had never made latkes with her family, but she began making them for her own family shortly after moving to New Hampshire.
“I wanted to raise my kids a little more traditionally than I was raised,” Bach said.
She now hosts an annual Hanukkah party at her Chester home for which she makes “tons and tons of latkes.”
When Z restaurant, 860 Elm St., Manchester, 629-9383, www.zfoodanddrink.com, was open for brunch, the menu boasted a variation of the potato latke — a potato pancake with smoked salmon. Potato cakes are now served at Z catering events with fresh corn and shrimp and topped with roasted red pepper remoulade.
Z owner and chef Tom Puskarich said he experimented with potato cakes and latkes when putting the dish together. Whereas latkes are made with raw potatoes (Puskarich recommends Russet or Yukon Gold), potato pancakes are made with mashed potatoes.
Puskarich said potato cakes were often found on the breakfast table on Sunday mornings when he was growing up, as his mother often made a roast and mashed potatoes for dinner on Saturdays.
“The latkes themselves are not a leftover product,” he said.
A good cast iron pan, heated hot but not scorching, is needed to make a potato latke, Puskarich said.
“That’s the trick — trying to find that temperature level so it gets the potatoes nice and crisp but still cooks all the way through,” he said.
For a “real classic presentation,” Puskarich recommended topping latkes with apple chutney, creme fraiche and chives.“I try not to embellish them,” Puskarich said. “Everyone wants the latkes their grandmother made.”