THERE ARE TWO of us in Jayne Cohen's Greenwich Village kitchen, but it feels like three: When Cohen makes potato latkes for Hanukkah, the presence of her maternal grandmother, Rebecca Suffin, seems almost palpable.Cohen, whose cookbook, "The Gefilte Variations" (Scribner, $35), contains as many fond family stories as it does Jewish-themed recipes, grew up in Long Beach, and her childhood memories of Chanukah are inextricably linked to her grandmother's latkes. "One very happy memory," Cohen said, "is of eating my grandmother's latkes for dinner and not having to eat anything else besides a salad."
But the young Cohen also paid close attention to how her grandmother produced those latkes, recalling vividly the fleshy-but-strong upper arms that swung to and fro as her grandmother grated the potatoes. "It was a really long process," Cohen recalled. "She would grate some of the potatoes on the very large holes, some on the very fine holes. Then she'd drain everything in a strainer and then squeeze out the remaining moisture in a dish towel."
Thus did Cohen learn The First Rule of Latkes: Moisture is the enemy of the latke. When grated, potatoes release a good deal of water. "Some people," Cohen explained, "make up for the wetness by adding matzoh meal or flour." But a better strategy is to drain as much water as possible out of the potatoes "so there's less moisture to deal with, and you get a more potatoey latke with less filler."
As much as she respects tradition, Cohen is a devoted adherent of the food processor, a view that she believes her grandmother would have applauded, since "she was always nicking her knuckles on the grater." Cohen has updated her grandmother's grating method for the electric age. First she processes the entire quantity of potatoes using the large grating disk, then she takes out athird of the shredded potatoes and pulses it to a coarse puree. This method has an added advantage. "Whenever you work with a food processor, you always end up with these big chunks," she explained, holding up the stump that was left after the rest of the potato got sucked into the maw of the machine. "But you can throw all the chunks into the processor when you puree. I also do this when I make potato kugel."
Next she turned to the latke-frying medium. What did Grandma fry in? "She started out using chicken fat, but then, for health reasons, she switched to corn oil." For her own latkes, Cohen uses olive oil, a choice that, ironically, honors the spirit of both of her grandmother's choices. "The reason people used to use chicken fat is that it had taste." Cohen missed that element in her grandmother's latter-day corn-oil-fried latkes. Using an inexpensive but fruity extra-virgin olive oil (such as Colavita), Cohen achieves both a cholesterol-free latke, and a flavorful one.
Talk of frying led to The Second Rule of Latkes: The oil must be hot-but not too hot. "If the oil is too hot," said Cohen, "the outside will burn before the inside has a chance to cook. But if it's not hot enough, a protective crust won't form, and the latke will get oily."
Cohen prefers to fry in cast iron, because "you get an even heat distribution, the iron holds heat well and it doesn't cool down too much when you add cold latke batter."
Cohen regulates the heat of her pan so that the latkes need about 4 minutes on each side to get crispy and brown. "It's better to start out too hot than too cold," she said, "and turn down the heat if it's cooking too quickly." Once the first batch comes out, Cohen removes any potato detritus from the pan before starting on batch two. "Anything that's cooked will burn immediately.
And if you actually find burned pieces, you should really clean up the pan and start with new oil."
Once the latkes are fried, Cohen blots off excess oil by setting them on two layers of paper towels. Then it's time to put into effect The Third Rule of Latkes: Eat immediately.
Instead of using raw onion, Cohen enhances these potato latkes with sauteed shallots. Another elegant touch-which she got from her grandmother-is to sprinkle them lightly with sugar. From "The Gefilte Variations".
Crispy Shallot Latkes With Sugar Dusting
1 1/2 cups peeled and thinly sliced shallots
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or fine-quality olive oil
About 1 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold or russet (baking) potatoes, peeled
1 large egg, beaten
3/4 teaspoon salt or to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon matzoh meal or all-purpose flour
Olive oil for frying
Sugar, preferably superfine, for dusting
1. In a heavy, medium skillet, cook the shallots in the butter or olive oil over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until golden and crispy, about 15 minutes. Drain on paper towels and let cool.
2. Coarsely shred the potatoes, using the grating disk in a food processor. Transfer the potatoes to a colander or strainer and use your hands or a wooden spoon to press out as much moisture as possible. The longer the potatoes sit, the more moisture you'll be able to press out.
3. Remove the grating disk from the processor and replace with the steel blade. Return 1/3 of the shredded potatoes to the food processor and pulse to roughly puree. Transfer to a large bowl, add the remaining potatoes and the egg, salt, pepper, baking powder, and matzoh meal or flour. Stir in the shallots. Mix until thoroughly combined.
4. In a 10- to 12-inch skillet (cast iron is ideal), heat about 1/4 inch of oil over high heat until hot but not smoking. Using a 1/4 cup measure, drop the batter into the pan, then flatten the latkes with a spatula. Cook no more than 4 or 5 latkes at a time; crowding the pan will lower the heat and make the latkes soggy.
5. Regulate the heat carefully as the latkes fry until golden and crisp on the bottom, about 4 minutes. To prevent the oil from splattering, use two spatulas to turn the latkes. Fry until crisp and golden on the other side. Avoid turning the latkes more than once or they will absorb too much oil.
6. Transfer the cooked latkes to paper towels to drain and sprinkle them lightly with sugar (a scant 1/2 teaspoon for each). Continue frying latkes in the same way until all the batter is used. If necessary, add more oil to the pan between batches, but always allow the oil to get hot before frying a new batch.
7. Pass additional sugar when serving. Little salt shakers filled with sugar are attractive and make it less likely that a guest will dump an inedible amount of sugar on a latke.
Note: Latkes are best eaten immediately, but they can be kept warm in a single layer on an ovenproof platter lined with paper towels in a 200-degree oven. Or make the latkes up to 2 hours ahead of time and let rest at room temperature. Then place them on a rack in a baking sheet and reheat them in a 400-degree oven until hot, about 10 minutes.