Posts Tagged ‘Hanukkah’

Channeling Olivia; or Miracle on Mosholu Parkway

November 27, 2010

An amazing number of people who have never visited the Bronx have strong opinions about it. Their view tends to be of a bleak urban area, convulsed by gang warfare and illuminated by fires set by antisocial delinquents.

In reality, the Bronx, (where I spent my childhood), is  a place of infinite variety. Its  marvels  include extensive parkland,  a number of lavish  estates, spectacular river views, world famous botanical and zoological gardens, and Arthur Avenue, the main location for southern Italian  foods  in the northeast U.S..

(True, there is at present a dearth of good  kosher deli’s, but this could change.)

Edgar Allen Poe’s dismal little cottage is in the Bronx, and so are a number of great medical facilities, such as  Montefiore and Jacobi.

Woodlawn Cemetery, the last stop for many interesting and celebrated dead folks, is in the Bronx. (It’s near Montefiore, but only by coincidence). City Island is part of the Bronx, and more like a New England fishing village than may be found in most of New England.

The Bronx  is where I first met Sherlock Holmes, thanks to a kind and creative English teacher. It is also where I applied the Great Detective’s problem solving methods to culinary questions. As Hanukkah begins on December 1st this year, it seems a good time to post this.

(A version of this article appeared in the Long Island Times Beacon Record.)

On Hanukkah, as we do each year, Olivia’s ghost and I will make latkes.

The ritual of producing slightly paranormal potato pancakes began years ago in the Mosholu Parkway apartment in the Bronx where I grew up.

My parents’ much-loved friend and housekeeper Olivia had died before I was born, but tales of her culinary prowess, her storytelling gifts, and her extraordinary management skills were a constant part of our family’s dinner table conversation.

My mother, a drama teacher who worked long hours, had a limited knowledge of cooking but a well-developed appreciation of good food. Unable to remember Olivia without tears, she had lovingly preserved Olivia’s kitchen tools—Olivia’s big cream-colored mixing bowls, Olivia’s worn but effective masher, Olivia’s businesslike grater, Olivia’s huge wooden spoons—and with these I largely taught myself to cook.

But although I had Olivia’s tools, I lacked Olivia’s recipes. She had been a master who worked by inspired instinct. I managed to approximate some dishes by carefully following my parents’ detailed descriptions, but the historic latke stubbornly eluded me.

“Good,” my father, Max, would say, manfully chomping on my latest effort. “Very good, kid, but, not Olivia’s. … Maybe you’ll hit it next year?” he’d add wistfully.

By the time I was 15 I was determined to meet my father’s challenge and find the latke secret.

My mother had invited a dozen Hanukkah guests—including, she said apologetically, “The Difficult Ones (a cousin ‘Who’d Had a Tragic Life,’ an uncle ‘Who Had a Condition’),” a few friends, and some neighbors, including “Seymour Who Lives Alone Like a Stone.”

It would be a large audience for a new cook, but at least, I hoped, not a threatening one.

With my father as sous chef and adviser I began serious research.

Week after week, I shredded and grated into Olivia’s bowl. I tried onions and shallots, matzo meal and flour, eggs and no eggs. Olive oil and chicken fat. Nyafat and Crisco. I fried and I cried. Platters of latkes of various sizes and shapes covered the counter, the top of the fridge, the windowsills. My father nibbled and critiqued.

“Very good. Really is. But . . . it’s not Olivia’s.”

Finally, the night before Hanukkah, exhausted and demoralized, as I was washing the onion smell from my hands, a realization hit me. The task was impossible. This Hebraic Holy Grail could not be found. I would never find Olivia’s latkes. They had assumed such mythic force that no real latke would ever suffice. I felt a great accepting calm—as if I had received a warm hug from a dear friend. I marched into the kitchen to share the epiphany with my father.

He was munching thoughtfully on a latke.

“You’ve really done it kid!” he said.

“I’m proud of you! This,” he proclaimed, waving the latke at me, “is Olivia’s Latke!”

“Really?” I gasped.

My mother’s opinion was requisitioned. Slightly distracted, as she had been frantically rewriting the third act of the holiday play she was directing, she dutifully tried the specified pancake.

“You’re right!” she said, her eyes reddening. “It’s Olivia’s!” There was much hugging and laughing and marveling.

“Wonderful!” my father said. “It’s almost as if Olivia taught you. You do remember exactly which batch this one came from?” he demanded.

“Certainly,” I lied.

So my parents went happily to bed and I stayed up frantically tasting and frying. Thankfully there were only four possibilities in the kitchen that night and so by the next evening I had figured it out.

The guests arrived, and we put both leaves in the dining room table and brought in extra chairs from the living room and we all ate Olivia’s latkes by the light of the menorah.

“The Difficult Ones” relaxed, comparatively. The cousin “Who’d Had a Tragic Life” didn’t cry much and sang only a few sad Russian songs. We all debated the relative merits of sour cream or applesauce as accompaniments to latkes.

“Seymour Who Lives Alone Like a Stone” sat next to “Fanny Who Still Lives With Her Parents, Poor Thing” and actually spoke to her twice, which made my matchmaking mother giddy with joy.

Bursting with adolescent pride I listened as my father told everyone how hard and long I had worked and how Olivia would have been proud of me.

And then, looking at me down the length of the table, he remarked, “You know one of the things Olivia used to make that was terrific? Mushroom and barley soup. Boy, how I loved that soup. And no one knows just how she made it  . . .”

Olivia’s latkes

(I have adjusted this for a food processor. Olivia used a fiendish hand grater.)


2 lb russet potatoes

Large sweet onion, chilled in fridge.

2 eggs

About 6 tablespoons matzo meal

About ¾ tsp salt

Fresh ground pepper (about 8 good grinds)

Oil for frying


Peel potatoes, cut in chunks. Process ⅔ of them with steel blade—do not get too mushy. Spread on clean tea towel.

Process onion same way. Put onion in bowl with eggs, salt and pepper.

Shred the remaining potatoes with shredding blade in processor (the combination of textures is one of Olivia’s special contributions).

Put shredded potatoes along with grated ones in the tea towel. Fold towel over, wring as hard as you can over sink (contemplate hateful politician as you do this—I’m sure you’ll find no shortage of candidates).

Put wrung-out potatoes in bowl with egg and onion. Mix. Cover with matzo meal (if you are out of matzo meal, panko works well). Toss with fork. Do not over-mix. Mixture should just hold together—if it doesn’t, add more matzo meal, a little at a time, until it does.

Have oven at about 250 °F. Spread paper towels over work surfaces, enough to drain latkes (Olivia used brown paper grocery bags).

Heat two large heavy frying pans containing about ¼ to ½ inch of oil (Olivia used chicken fat. In the interest of long-term survival I suggest olive or canola oil).

When oil is hot enough to brown a bread crumb as soon as it hits the pan, begin spooning batter in pan using heaping tablespoon for each. Flatten with pancake turner. Flip when crisp and brown on bottom side (taste an early one to see if there is enough salt. If not, add salt to batter. Potatoes are not all alike). Drain on paper towels as they are done. Keep warm in oven.

Serve with applesauce or sour cream—or yogurt.

These can be frozen. To freeze, fry to a lighter color than if to be served immediately.

Spread out on a cookie sheet, place in freezer. When frozen, repack in plastic bags.

Heat in oven at 375 °F about 10 minutes.