Listen for the sizzle. That, says Devorah Marrus, is the trick to frying a fantastic potato latke, the crispy delicacy that signals Hanukkah is here.
Marrus makes a lot of potato latkes during the eight-day festival of lights, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the miracle of the oil found in the ancient temple of Jerusalem. Hanukkah begins at sundown Tuesday, and will include a Hanukkah parade and lighting of the State House Menorah.
She and her husband, Rabbi Levi Marrus, love to tell their three children the story of the Maccabees and their fight to regain the temple from the Syrian-Greeks, who had desecrated the holy place by putting idols within its sanctuary.
After their victory, the Jews wanted to purify the temple and relight the eternal flame on the Menorah, the distinctive branched sacred lampstand, but found only one vial of consecrated olive oil whose seal had not been broken during the defiling of the temple. Miraculously, that oil lasted for eight days.
So Marrus said many of the traditional foods of Hannukah begin with the use of oil, including deep-fried doughnuts that her three young children, Ahuva, 5, Chana, 4, and Batya, 2, decorate with chocolate, fillings and powdered sugar.
Marrus is a self-described “foodie” and modifies her family recipe for latkes to suit her taste. But there is one thing she has learned through the years – the secret to crispy latkes is draining all the water from the potato mixture.
Marrus selects five to six large potatoes – she likes a golden variety – which she shreds through a food processor along with an onion and two cloves of garlic.
“I like two cloves but if you like more, feel free,” she said. She wraps the potato and onion mixture in a clean towel and squeezes until all the excess water is expelled. The towel, once shaken out, goes directly into the wash. Then Marrus adds three eggs, flour and some pink salt to form a moist mixture.
Then comes the piece de resistance, the oil. “We are going to fry these with a LOT of oil,” she said. She pours about a quarter-inch of a specialty oil in her pan and then drops large spoonfuls of the mixture into the heated oil. She recommends canola oil as the safest for high heat, but she enjoys using a safflower avocado coconut oil.
Some cooks form the potato mixture into a more rounded shape, but Marrus prefers the drop method so that the shredded potato mix spreads into a lacy crispness. A minute or two on each side and soon she is sliding the finished latkes out of the pan.
Latkes are traditionally eaten with applesauce and sour cream, but she believes in being adventurous. Try salsa, she said, or some other side that enlightens and enriches the potato taste.
Devorah and Levi Marrus regularly open their home to share a meal with friends during holidays and after regular Friday night Shabbot services. The couple came to Columbia seven years ago to join two other rabbis and their families associated with the Chabad movement of Orthodox Judaism. As Orthodox Jews, they are committed to spreading the joy and understanding of Judaism and the holidays are a wonderful vehicle for that, she said.
Devorah, one of nine children, was born in Israel but grew up in New Jersey in a strictly Orthodox family.
She said her parents encouraged her and her siblings to ask questions about their faith.
“It was never default in my house,” she said. “It was always questioning and challenging.”
She expects her children will do the same when they get older, but for now she simply wants to instill the traditions of her faith. They attend school at the Cutler Jewish Day School and have classmates who are Christian, so they also wonder about Christmas trees and the birth of Jesus as well as the arrival of Santa Claus.
Having their own set of faith traditions – whether telling the stories of the Maccabees or enjoying the foods of the season like latkes – “gives them a sense of identity,” Devorah Marrus said. “And that’s the biggest gift you can give a child.”