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Learning There’s More to Latkes Than Potatoes

November 20, 2013 By:
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Chef Paul Spangler prepares apple strudel during a Chanukah-themed dinner at Cook. (Photo by Eric Berger)

What put the biggest scare into guests at Cook, a kitchen classroom in Center City, the night before Halloween? Learning that latkes do not absolutely need to have potatoes.

“The great thing about latkes is there are a million recipes,” said chef Paul Spangler, the owner of Shackamaxon Catering, who prepared a meal in front of 15 guests. “You can take the basic recipe and go lots and lots of different ways — adding things into the latke mix or adding toppings to the latkes.”

The dinner at Cook, which is owned by Audrey Claire Taichman of restaurants Audrey Claire and Twenty Manning Grill, was intended to put a different spin on some of the classic dishes served during Jewish holidays, especially when people are thinking about gobbling Chanu­kah meals because the holiday intersects with Thanksgiving.

Spangler started by making a ricotta cheese latke topped with apple compote and chopped walnuts. He said he chose the cheese variety “because this is the most traditional latke; this is where latkes came from.”

According to Gil Marks’ The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Jews who were expelled from Sicily in the 15th century brought the Italians’ recipe for ricotta cheese pancakes to other parts of Europe, and it became a traditional Chanukah dish.

The potato variety was not introduced until a few centuries later in Eastern Europe, according to Marks’ book.

Over the course of a few hours, Spangler and another chef prepared a timbale of beets, avocado and chicken liver pate; roast chicken with a spin­ach, kale and apricot glaze infusion; a brisket with simmered apricots, prunes, white raisins and creamy polenta; and for dessert, an apple strudel. 

Diners asked questions about why roasting takes some of the bitterness out of beets — “Chemical reaction,” said Spangler — and how to properly slice brisket — “With the grain; it gives the meat its signature texture” — but the most back and forth came at the start of the meal around latkes and potatoes.

Lori Miller attended the event with her daughter, Rachel Miller, a fellow attorney, and said that, in their family, “it’s a rush for the latkes. It’s like a whole thing for my husband. It’s a platter. It’s a centerpiece.”

Lily Cope, executive director of Cook, said such events give guests a rare opportunity to see established chefs in an intimate setting. Describing the cooks for the Chanukah event, Cope managed to work in the pun, “this is small potatoes,” compared to the large parties they often cater.

A few days after the event with Spangler, Cook hosted a “Thanksgivukkah Celebration” with Laura Frangiosa of The Avenue Delicatessen in Lansdowne. 

Cope said past events connected to Jewish foods have not sold well because, she suspects, people think, “I can make the same thing at home.” But the Shackamaxon dinner was almost full and the Thanksgivuk­kah event sold out.

“I want younger couples to come to a class like this,” said Cope, whose father is Jewish. “I want a girl who is cooking for Chanukah for the first time or a girl who married a Jewish guy and doesn’t know how to make latkes.”

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