Sunday, December 11, 2011

Latkes Interruptus

George Segal, Cinema, 1963

     Life's Tilt-a-Whirl apparatus  tilted unxpectedly yesterday when we arrived home in Orange County to find ourselves with no power, no heat and only the utility company to complain to. "They" say Death Don't Have No Mercy (link), but "they" have probably never encountered the folks at Orange & Rockland Power and Light (and Darkness and Cold).

     We were planning to attend a holiday party today in Stamford, CT given every year by good friends who knock themselves out creating a faith and cuisine-crossing cusp-of-winter extravaganza.  Unfortunately we needed to turn right around and head back to Pennsylvania or risk turning into simulacra of Jack Nicholson's icy rigor mortis effigy at the end of The Shining if we dared to remain overnight.

   The centerpiece(s) of this party are my friend Ken's latkes or potato pancakes, which are always excellent.  I grew up eating these Eastern European beignets, but they were originally a novelty for Jane and Caroline that they've now grown to love.  To salve their disappointment, we're preparing them at home tonight for the first time.

    Sorting through recipes, I found the one which follows below in the 1977 Museum of Modern Art Artist's Cookbook.  It comes from the kitchen of the sculptor George Segal (1924-2000), who was best known for his Edward Hopper-esque "American scene" tableaus featuring white plaster-cast figures.  (Actually, these latkes are Segal's mother's recipe.)   I also decided to include here Martha Stewart's variation in last position, where beer replaces baking powder as the leavening agent and pink applesauce and caviar are suggested as garnish lily-gilt. 

      I hope you enjoy these (and that our own dinner experiment works out).  Please try not to let that Jack Nicholson image linger too long in your brain.

George Segal, The Tar Roofer, 1964

Sophie’s Potato Pancakes

Makes about 2 dozen

4 large potatoes, peeled and finely grated

3 large eggs

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 heaping teaspoon baking powder

4-8 ounces of vegetable oil for frying

1/8 teaspoon pepper

In a large bowl, beat eggs lightly.  Add salt, baking powder and pepper.  Add egg mixture to potatoes and mix thoroughly with a wooden spoon.   Mix in flour.  In a large frying pan heat 3 tablespoons of oil until it smokes.  Spoon potato mixture by the tablespoon into the pan.  Brown 2 minutes and lower heat.  Turn and fry another 3 minutes.  As pancakes absorb oil, add more to the pan so that half the thickness of the pancakes is always covered.  Drain pancakes on paper towels.  Repeat until all batter is used.  Serve hot.

NOTEThese pancakes are delicious with applesauce.  George’s mother Sophie substitutes matzo meal for flour during Passover.


George Segal preparing to plaster cast art historian Barbara Novak, Dublin, 1993

Martha Stewart's Potato Pancakes

Martha shares her favorite recipe for latkes -- potato pancakes that are traditionally prepared for Hanukkah dinners. Serve them warm from the oven with warm applesauce, sour cream, or caviar.


  • 4 large russet potatoes, peeled
  • 1 small white onion, finely grated
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/4 cup beer
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon coarse salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Vegetable oil, for frying
  • Pink applesauce, for serving (optional)
  • Sour cream, for serving (optional)
  • Osetra caviar, for serving (optional)


  1. Grate potatoes in long strips, using smooth strokes to run the potatoes across the grater into a large bowl of cold water. Drain potatoes well, reserving liquid, and transfer to a second bowl.
  2. Set reserved liquid aside for 10 minutes to allow the starch to sink to the bottom of the bowl. Carefully pour the liquid from the bowl, reserving the milky residue (potato starch), and discard. Transfer potatoes back to bowl with potato starch.
  3. Add onion to the bowl with potatoes. Stir in eggs, beer, flour, salt, and pepper.
  4. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Line a baking sheet with paper towels; set aside. In a heavy skillet, heat 1/2-inch of oil. Spoon 1/2 cup of potato mixture per pancake into skillet. Make a few at a time, being careful that they don't run into each other.
  5. Fry on both sides until golden brown, 4 to 6 minutes. Transfer to prepared baking sheet to drain. Keep warm in oven while preparing the others. Serve hot with applesauce, sour cream, and caviar, if desired.

George Segal  Seated Man In Front Of Window sculpture adjacent to Jasper Johns Target painting

12-11 POST-SCRIPT:  Our own dinner, created using Malvina W. Leibman's Elizabeth David-like recipe in her Jewish Cooking From Boston to Baghdad (1975), was really superb and is very similar to Martha Stewart's version.  I think Sophie Segal uses much more flour than is needed, but that the George Segals displayed here are nicely balanced in terms of observation and execution.  Would love to try this with caviar, but to everything there is a season, I guess, and now is not the time, unless you happen to be invited to a soiree at the Russian or Iranian embassies or, perhaps the White House.


  1. Sounds like an adventure followed by a great evening at home--the latter being my favorite.
    Thanks for the recipes!

  2. Nin: If you send me your email address at, I will forward you the Malvina Leibman one we used also, which worked splendidly. I chose to use the Segals for illutration, rather than actual potato pancake photos because most web illustrations of these attractive items look unappetizing. The only good one I found was Martha Stewart's, which makes sense because it was an "editorial", gussied-up with lacquer and heaven-knows-what shot. I'm hoping to have power restored in NY in several days. Winter's coming and so is a guest of our daughter's. Hope things are going ok for you. Curtis

  3. Is Tuxedo Park the location of the home you alluded to? It must have been a maddening evening, but at least you'll have latkes.

    The recipe I use is from an old paperback cookbook passed down to me from my mother. The quote on the cover from The New York Times says: "Stuffed with delicious wit and savory recipes....As entertaining as it is practical....Irresistible." It is all that. My mother had used it so frequently, she needed to apply thick masking tape to the binding, twice. The pages are falling out, and many of them are stained with ingredients from wonderful dinners past. Sara Kasdan's comments at the end are almost better than the recipe. Nell

    From Love and Knishes – How to Cook Like A Jewish Mother, Sara Kasdan, Fawcett Crest Books, 1956

    Potato Pancakes

    2 cups grated raw potatoes (measure after draining)
    2 eggs, beaten
    1 teaspoon salt
    1 rounded or heaping tablespoon flour or matzo meal
    Pinch of baking powder
    1 small onion, grated (optional)

    Combine all ingredients. Mix well. Drop pancake mixture by the tablespoonful onto a hot skillet generously greased with butter or shortening. (If you like thin, crisp pancakes, flatten with the back of a spoon.) Fry on both sides until brown. Serve piping hot with sour cream, or with applesauce as an accompaniment to a pot roast.

    Note: This recipe should serve 4 to 6 people, but when some see potato latkes they act like they haven’t eaten for a week. They will want to make from latkes alone a meal. When you have people who enjoy so much, so you won’t mind grating potatoes all day long.

  4. Thanks so much for this, Nell. I've saved it. Here is the recipe we actually used, which was excellent. Yes, the house is in Tuxedo Park. It's beautiful there, but the winters are as difficult as the real estate market. The drive back to Philly was also weird -- all detours and middle of the night construction. I was tempted to kiss the ground when we arrived in Berwyn. Curtis


    No food is more characteristic of the holiday of Chanuka among European Jews than is the potato latke. Pancakes are generally associated with this holiday, but they take many different forms, depending on the geographical area and culture.

    1 onion grated and drained
    6 raw potatoes grated
    2 tbsp flour
    ½ tsp baking powder
    2 tbsp cornstarch
    1 tsp salt
    ¼ tsp pepper
    2 eggs, well beaten
    Oil for frying

    Combine the flour, baking powder, cornstarch, salt and pepper. Beat the eggs in a large bowl. Grate the onion and add to the eggs. Quickly grate the potatoes, drain and add to the egg mixture. Add the flour mixture. Mix well. Drop by the spoonful into the hot oil. Fry, turning once, until brown and crisp. Serve with applesauce, sour cream or plain to accompany a meat dish.

  5. Nell -- One more thing. The Malvina Leibman book, which belonged to my mother, is really fascinating. Jewish recipes from China, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Italy, Holland. Really remarkable. Curtis

  6. While not traditional, I recommend sweet potatoes as a key ingredient (at least 50% of the quantity of regular potatoes), and a great flavor enhancer.

  7. Thanks, Ken. I will tell Caroline, who is likely to endorse. Please visit again. Curtis