Haute potatoes: Fry off whets appetites for varietal latkes

Sarah Klein’s Oakland kitchen smelled like Indian spiced tea and fried potatoes.

The unusual aroma was a byproduct of Klein’s latke-cooking experiment, in preparation for a class she’ll teach Monday, Dec. 22 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

“Super 8: 8 Types of Latkes” will teach attendees how to put some new twists on the classic Chanukah munchie. But don’t worry, Klein assured. She also plans to include recipes and instructions for the traditional version.

A week before the class — which she called a “fry off” — Klein’s retro kitchen was a culinary laboratory. Clad in jeans, a T-shirt and red apron, she chopped and diced using her 98-year-old grandmother’s cutting board and scale. On this afternoon, she was trying to enliven an Internet recipe by adding chai tea spices to a mixture of Russet and sweet potatoes.

After her fourth attempt — less cardamom, more ginger, less cinnamon and Medjool dates — she sat at her kitchen table and dipped a forkful of her latest creation into applesauce.

Eagerly, she took her first bite. “Oh, this is exactly what I was going for,” she said.

Klein, who works as a personal chef, periodically teaches cooking classes for the Hub, the young adult arm of the JCCSF. She got the idea for the “fry off” when on a hike with a friend.

“What if you ate one different latke for every night of Chanukah?” she remembered thinking. “It’s a bit overboard, but I’m always up for a challenge.”

Next week’s class will not just be a how-to demonstration like on TV cooking shows. Klein envisions a festive kitchen full of people “grating, peeling and frying potatoes everywhere.”

Attendees will get a booklet containing recipes for eight kinds of latkes, ranging from the classic potato latke to a root-vegetable latke, with concoctions like a curried mushroom and zucchini latke in between. The latkes will be paired with some traditional toppings and a few surprising sauces.

Klein hopes to inspire attendees to go home and try to create their own special versions.

“I like to give people a lot of permission” to experiment, she said. “I don’t want people to say, ‘It’s so hard, I can’t do it.’ “

For those who want to practice on their own at home, Klein recommended finding a basic latke recipe “that’s in the realm of what you’re trying to do.”

Make a half-portion of the basic recipe, she said, then make another version with a couple of additional ingredients. Track your modifications. Cook, eat and evaluate. Try a third version with more changes; add and subtract ingredients according to taste.

When you get it just right, Klein said, write down the recipe so you can make it and serve it for Chanukah.

Sarah Klein’s Chai Spice Sweet Potato Latkes

Makes 20 latkes

1 lb. Russet potatoes

1 lb. sweet potatoes

2 Tbs. flour

2 eggs

1⁄2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. cinnamon

1⁄8 tsp. nutmeg

1⁄8 tsp. cloves

1⁄8 tsp. cardamom

1 tsp. black pepper

1 Tbs., plus one tsp. freshly grated ginger

1 tsp. salt

8 medjool dates, pits removed and diced

vegetable oil for frying

Peel and grate potatoes by hand or in a food processor. Remove excess water by wringing the mixture in a piece of cheesecloth or cloth towel and place in a medium sized bowl. Save the liquid in a bowl and let it settle to extract the potato starch. Mix in flour, eggs, baking powder, dates and spices. Pour off water from the potato starch and mix it in well.

Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a frying pan. Place several large spoonfuls of the latke mixture in the pan and press them down with spatula to flatten. Cook until brown on both sides and then transfer to paper towels to drain. Serve warm with sour cream and applesauce.

“Super 8: 8 Types of Latkes” is set for 6:30-9 p.m. Monday, Dec. 22 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. Cost: $30 nonmembers, $25 members. Information: (415) 292-1200 or www.jccsf.org.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.