Latkes Like Momma Makes

Muriel Shapiro is one of my favorite peripheral characters in my novel, The Tedescos. The shy, intelligent native of New Jersey flees her home state with the dream of starting afresh in Northeast Ohio. When she moves into Joe and Shirley’s neighborhood, all memories of her disastrous cooking experiences under the tutelage of her impatient mother have been left behind. So have comparisons between Muriel and her well-married, grandchild-producing sisters, a father whose every sentence is spoken in a yelling voice, and the constant reminders of her failed art gallery. If ever anyone needed a peaceful environment in which to recoup, it is Muriel Shapiro.

The following recipe for latkes is quite easy, so perhaps dear Muriel’s talents simply lie elsewhere. I’m sure you’ll have splendid success when making “Momma’s” latkes and enjoy eating them even more than preparing them.

Momma Shapiro’s Latkes

12 Russet potatoes, peeled and shredded

1 large Vidalia onion, chopped

4 cloves of garlic, pressed

2 eggs, beaten

4 T flour

Salt and pepper to taste

Peanut oil

Peel the potatoes and place them whole in a large bowl of cold, salted water until all twelve are peeled.

I recommend shredding the potatoes through a food processor to achieve matchstick like shreds. Be sure to press out all the liquid from the potatoes either by squeezing them through cheesecloth or a clean tea towel or in a colander under a heavy bowl filled with water. Wet potatoes do not fry well.

Combine the shredded potatoes and chopped onion in a large bowl. Add the remaining ingredients (except the peanut oil) and stir. You may need to mix with your hands to ensure the potatoes are thoroughly coated.

Heat the peanut oil in a cast iron skillet to very hot. The oil will ripple across the top and pop when ready. Drop in large spoonsful of the mixture and gently press them into patties. Fry the latkes until golden brown and crisp on each side. Transfer the cooked latkes by slotted spoon to a paper towel-lined platter to drain excess oil. Serve them warm with sour cream and applesauce.

Enjoy!

Getting Out of a Sticky Situation

getting-out-of-a-sticky-situationGladys Feldman, mother to Sam, is determined to make the holidays happy for one of her son’s best friends, Claude Willoughby. Sam and John are also trying to cheer up their friend who has been left in Maryland as punishment while his family returns home to Kentucky to celebrate Christmas.

What the trio comes up with is an after-the-fact Chanukkah party to lift Claude’s spirits. Gladys invites her son’s friends over for a meal of brisket and latkes. As delicious as the meal is, the real fun doesn’t begin until she guides them through the process of making sufganiyot, and all four end up in a friendly powdered sugar fight before settling down to play dreidel.

The following recipe is the one I had in mind when I wrote the scene above. Sufganiyot are traditionally served at Chanukkah, but they are so easy to make that you’ll probably want to sample them a couple times throughout the year.

Enjoy!

Sufganiyot

1 package active dry yeast

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

¼ cup granulated sugar

3 ¾ cups all-purpose flour

¾ cup whole milk

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

2 large eggs

4 cups vegetable oil, for frying (I used canola)

1 cup seedless red raspberry jelly or other favorite jelly flavor

Powdered sugar for sprinkling

Mix the yeast, one teaspoon granulated sugar, and ¼ cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees F) in a large bowl (preferably not metal). Let stand until yeast mixture foams, about five minutes.

With a wooden spoon, stir flour, milk, butter, salt, nutmeg, eggs, and remaining ¼ cup granulated sugar into yeast mixture until evenly blended. The dough will be very sticky. Cover the bowl with a clean cloth towel, and let the dough rise in warm place (80 to 85 degrees F) until doubled, about 1 ½ hours.

With floured hands, punch down the dough. Turn the dough onto a heavily floured surface, and let rest ten minutes. With floured hands, pat the dough ½-inch thick. With a floured, three-inch round biscuit cutter, cut out as many rounds as possible. Place the rounds, about two inches apart, on lightly floured cookie sheets. Gently press any trimmings together. Repeat steps above. Cover the rounds, and let them rise in a warm place until doubled, about one hour.

In a ten-inch skillet, heat the oil over medium heat until the temperature reaches 375 ° F on a deep-fry thermometer. With a wide metal spatula, carefully place two or three doughnuts in the hot oil. Fry until golden brown, about 1 ½ minutes, turning over once. With a large slotted spoon, transfer doughnuts to wire racks lined with paper towels to drain. Repeat with the remaining dough rounds.

When the doughnuts are cool enough to handle, using a small sharp knife, pierce the doughnuts from one side almost to the opposite side. Place the jelly in a decorating bag fitted with ¼-inch round tip. Squeeze a small amount of jelly into each doughnut through the slit. Cool the doughnuts completely on a wire rack. Sprinkle doughnuts with powdered sugar to serve.

Spin to Win

spin-to-winIn December of 1927, Claude Willoughby has been left behind in Maryland as his father, sister, and step-mother return to Kentucky for Christmas. The cruel abandonment is Claude’s punishment for disobeying his father’s directive. Sam Feldman comes to Claude’s rescue by inviting him and their friend, John Welles, over for an after-the-fact Hanukkah celebration. After a meal of brisket and latkes, the boys play dreidel with Sam’s mother, Gladys.

Although the game is meant for children, I know quite a few adults, myself included, who get caught up in playing dreidel every Hanukkah. In fact, we have a tradition that last year’s winner must return to defend his or her title the following year.

The Hebrew word sevivon or s’vivon means to turn around. Dreidel is the Yiddish word for a spinning top. All dreidels have four Hebrew letters on them which stand for the saying Nes gadol haya sham, meaning a great miracle occurred there. In Israel, instead of the fourth letter shin, there is a peh which changes the saying to Nes gadol haya po, a great miracle occurred here.

Playing with the dreidel is a traditional Hanukkah game played in Jewish homes all over the world, and rules may vary. Here’s how to play the basic dreidel game:

  1. Any number of people can take part.
  2. Each player begins the game with an equal number of game pieces (about 10-15) such as pennies, nuts, chocolate chips, raisins, matchsticks, etc. (Our family uses Hershey’s Nuggets which makes winning or losing fun as many of the playing pieces are enjoyed during the game.)
  3. At the beginning of each round, every participant puts one game piece into the center pot. In addition, every time the pot is empty or has only one game piece left, every player should put one in the pot.
  4. Every time it’s your turn, spin the dreidel once. Depending on the outcome, you give or get game pieces from the pot:
  5. Nun means nisht or nothing. The player does nothing.
  6. Gimmel means gantz or everything. The player gets everything in the pot.
  7. Hey means halb or half. The player gets half of the pot. (If there is an odd number of pieces in the pot, the player takes half of the total plus one.)
  8. Shin (outside of Israel) means shtel or put in.  Peh (in Israel) also means put in. The player adds a game piece to the pot. (Our family puts two pieces in.)
  9. If you find that you have no game pieces left, you are either out or may ask a fellow player for a loan. (We’re pretty ruthless for the Dreidel Champion title; once you’re out, you’re out!)
  10. When one person has won everything, that round of the game is over!

For non-Jewish players, we came up with a way to remember what do to for each Hebrew letter:

Nun you get none – don’t do anything

Gimme gimmel – you get the entire pot

Hey means half – you get half the pot plus one if there’s an odd number of pieces

Shin two in – put two game pieces in the pot

Keep Calm and Eat Latkes

Keep Calm and Eat LatkesLatkes are featured twice in my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. The first time was during a Hanukkah celebration Sam Feldman hosted for his two friends, John Welles and Claude Willoughby. Although Hanukkah was technically over, Sam’s idea to celebrate again was meant to cheer up Claude who had not returned to Kentucky with his family for Christmas. Sam’s mother, Gladys, made the latkes as an accompaniment to her brisket.

The second instance in which latkes are served was during the dinner John had with his neighbors, Reuben and Hannah Wise, during the years he lived in West Virginia. Hannah served the shredded potatoes with salmon patties.

In both stories, the following recipe is the one I had in mind. Because the Feldmans and Wises are Jews, they would have used any oil other than lard. I recommend peanut oil because it ensures a wonderful crisp exterior and a tender, well-cooked middle. Some cooks prefer canola, but all appear to agree that this is one time to forego olive oil. Forget fancy potatoes for latkes as the starch in Russets also guarantees crunchy edges and soft, fluffy middles.

Latkes

12 Russet potatoes, shredded

1 large Vidalia onion, chopped

4 cloves of garlic, pressed

2 eggs, beaten

4 T flour

Salt and pepper to taste

Peanut oil

I recommend shredding the potatoes through a food processor to achieve matchstick like shreds. Be sure to press out all the liquid from the potatoes either by squeezing them through cheesecloth or a clean tea towel or in a colander under a heavy bowl filled with water. Wet potatoes do not fry well.

Combine the shredded potatoes and chopped onion in a large bowl. Add the remaining ingredients (except the oil) and stir. You may need to mix with your hands to ensure the clumps of potatoes are thoroughly coated.

Heat the oil in a cast iron skillet to very hot. The oil will ripple across the top and pop when ready. Drop in large spoonsful of the mixture and fry until golden brown and crisp on each side. Transfer the cooked latkes by slotted spoon to a paper towel-lined platter. Serve with sour cream and applesauce.

Enjoy!

The Three Baers

Stacey Baer closed the door of the cab as a sheet of rain slammed the side of the vehicle. Victory over the weather cheered her considerably until she saw the congested roads ahead. She groaned and opened her brief case removing a small laptop. The long trip home would be well spent marking portions of the deposition she took today. As she worked, her cell phone rang.

“Baer,” she answered.

“Stacey, it’s Doug.”

“So help me God, if you cancel on me—”

“Babe, this dinner is just as important to me as it is to you.”

“Obviously not, Douglas.”

“I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”

He hung up without waiting for her reply, trusting that she would give him another chance. Whether or not she forgave him wasn’t his concern.

Stacey tried not to obsess about being stood up again. Instead, she turned her thoughts to dinner and the fact that nothing had been defrosted. Perhaps there was still a carton of Chinese in the fridge. Forty-five minutes later, she unlocked the door to her apartment and walked into the smell of cooking.

“Mom?” she called.

“In here, honey,” Golda Baer replied.

Stacey found her mother in the kitchen pulling a roast chicken from the oven. A platter of latkes and bowl of warm applesauce had been placed in the middle of the table.

“Grab some plates and pour the wine,” Golda said.

“Mom, what are you doing?”

“Making dinner, what does it look like?”

“Doug and I made reservations at Piatto.”

“Well, he called and cancelled your dinner plans.”

“Did you listen to my messages again?”

“No, I answered the phone when he called. Now sit down and let’s eat.”

Stacey slammed her briefcase and purse on the countertop. “Mom, I love you, but you cannot keep making these intrusions into my life. I gave you a key to my apartment for emergencies.”

“This is an emergency. I’m trying to feed my unmarried daughter who always eats alone, and when she does eat, it’s takeout.”

“Yes, well, I really just want you to leave,” Stacey said. “Mom, did you hear me? Please put down the chicken and go.”

“I don’t understand this. I just want to have dinner with my daughter.”

“You don’t respect me or my choices, so… ”

“What? You choose to be single and take every meal by yourself? That’s not healthy. I’m being kicked out because you chose a putz for a boyfriend?”

Stacey walked to the door and opened it. She couldn’t look at her mother when Golda passed.

– – – – –

Theo Baer tapped decorative finish nails into the chair he was reupholstering. He heard the door to his workshop open and his mother call out Hello.

“Over here, Ma,” he said with nails held between his lips.

“Theo, what on earth are you doing?” Golda asked.

“Finishing this chair, what does it look like?”

Golda harrumphed. “That old thing? I thought it had been thrown on the trash heap years ago.”

“Do you remember the chair?”

“Of course I remember it. How could I forget the chair your father died in?”

“Yes, well, I thought you would remember it as the chair he spent so much time in while he was alive,” Theo said.

“I remember he watched endless baseball in that chair while I raised you kids.”

“And he read bedtime stories to me and the girls every night,” Theo offered weakly. “I wanted to surprise you by fixing it up.”

“Oh, you surprised me all right.  Surprised me by leaving a perfectly good job as a stock broker to become a carpenter. I should have named you after he whose name shall not be mentioned. How do you expect to support your family playing at this?” Golda gestured to Theo’s saw-dusted covered clothes. “Besides, that fabric is the wrong color.”

“What do you mean? I took a swatch of the old fabric with me to choose. It is twenty years old. I did the best I could.”

Golda waved her hands to dismiss her son’s comment. “That’s not the point. Green was never the right color for that chair to begin with. You should have asked me and I could have told you blue would have been a much better choice.”

“Well, I‘m asking you now, Ma, to please—just leave.”

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“What wrong? Ma, I can’t take your constant criticism anymore. Or your disappointment. Nancy totally supports my decision to take over Dad’s furniture business.”

“Nancy gave up grad school to open a flower shop,” Golda said.

“Please, Ma, make sure the door latches on the way out.”

– – – – –

Gwen Baer was exhausted after a night of grading test papers. She turned back the covers and was about to slip into bed when she heard the doorbell ringing insistently. With a groan, she dragged herself downstairs to the front door.

“Momma, what are you doing here at this hour of the night?”

Golda brushed past her youngest daughter and looked around. “Are you alone?”

“Of course I am. Who did you expect to find here?”

“Well certainly not your husband.”

“Ex-husband, Momma. Rick is my ex now,” Gwen sighed.

“You didn’t waste any time relegating him to that role, now did you?”

“What did you expect? We are divorced.”

“Never mind. I came by to make sure you made it home okay.”

“You can see that I did.”

“This neighborhood isn’t so good, Gwenie.”

“Momma, we’ve been over this several times. I couldn’t afford the house I shared with Rick after the divorce.”

“But you can afford to go out every night?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’ve been getting reports at temple that you’ve been burning the midnight oil and not coming home. They tell me you’ve been sleeping around.” Golda whispered the last two words.

Gwen laughed. “So a few old biddies at temple have been gossiping about me? What do I care?”

“You should care about your reputation, little girl. Come home once in a while and sleep in your own bed.”

“Good grief, Momma, you make me sound like a slut.”

Golda shrugged and whined an I don’t know in her throat.

“I’m just saying that a fast girl won’t be looked at twice by a suitable man. You do want a husband, don’t you?”

“No, Momma. I just got rid of a husband who cheated on me all six years of our marriage. Being a good girl didn’t save our relationship,” Gwen said.

“That’s no reason to go sleeping with so many other men.”

“Who said I was? No, forget it. I don’t want to know.”

“And why is your nightgown so short? Who are you trying to catch, Gwenie?”

Gwen grasped handfuls of her hair and screamed through clenched teeth. “That’s it, Momma, you have to go. Now, please.”

“Is someone upstairs, honey?”

“No. I just need you to go and take your judgmental condemnation with you.”

Gwen stormed back upstairs without waiting to make sure her mother had left.

– – – – –

Golda sat on the subway alone, her handbag clutched on her lap. She crunched a peppermint, and then searched her purse for a comb to rake through her hair.

Two teenage boys shared the car with her. Their pants were low on their hips exposing plaid boxers, their expensive sneakers unlaced. Every other word out of their mouth was a swear word.

“Hey—quit that cussing,” Golda snapped.

“Mind your own business, old woman.”

“I tried to mind it, but they didn’t want to hear what I had to say.”

She rambled on and on about her unappreciative children until the boys became annoyed. They shook their heads at the crazy old lady talking to herself. She was such an easy target sitting on the seat alone, not paying attention. They mugged her for four dollars and a gold Timex watch.

As Golda sat in the now empty subway car, stunned and bruised from being roughed up, she wondered what the hell was wrong with kids these days. Their parents ought to be ashamed at the way they disrespected their elders. Why Golda herself would have died if her own three children had ever behaved in such a fashion.

She pulled her cellphone from her inner coat pocket. Little monsters didn’t think to check there, she thought. Stacey’s number was dialed first, and then Theo and Gwen were conferenced in.

“I’m making brisket and honey cake for dinner on Friday. Be there at 5:30 on the dot.”

Three voices chorused Yes, Mom, and then she hung up.

“They’re good kids,” Golda said to her own reflection across the aisle. “They just need some direction.”

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