There's more than one way to top a potato pancake Latke buffet

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The eight-day Jewish holiday of Hanukkah (this year beginning at sundown Dec. 8) is, in many people's minds, the Festival of Potato Pancakes. These pancakes, or "latkes" as they are called in Yiddish, have become the symbol of the holiday and are a must for any Hanukkah get-together. Parties for family and friends, rather than formal dinners, are the most popular way to celebrate Hanukkah.

The custom of serving fried foods, such as potato pancakes, grew out of the miracle of the oil, the central theme of Hanukkah. Over 2,000 years ago, the Jews drove a foreign army out of Jerusalem and rekindled the eternal light in the Temple with pure oil. Legend relates that only enough ritually clean oil for one day could be found, but it miraculously lasted for eight days, until more could be prepared. To commemorate this event, colorful candles are lighted each night of the holiday.

For children, lighting the candles is an important part of the holiday. My brother and I always took turns selecting our favorite colors of candles, arranging them in the Hanukkah candelabrum called the menorah, and helping our father light them. But I must admit, the best part of the holiday for us, as it is for other children, was getting a gift from our parents just after the lighting of the candles, as well as one or two chocolate coins, known as "Hanukkah gelt" or "Hanukkah money."

We also looked forward to my mother's delicious potato pancakes. Lacy pancakes made of grated potatoes appear to have come to us from Russia, but are now popular Hanukkah treats throughout the United States, Europe and Israel.

Usually potato pancakes are served with sour cream and applesauce. To turn them into an easy-to-serve party dish, prepare a variety of easy toppings for the pancakes and serve them buffet-style in two sections -- one with sweet toppings and one with savory accompaniments. In each section, be sure to have bowls of sour cream and yogurt. For the sweet toppings, set out containers of applesauce, pear compote, chopped nuts, and a mixture of cinnamon and sugar.

Savory accompaniments can include bowls of mushroom ragout, spicy cooked peppers, dill sour cream, yogurt-mint topping or fresh salsa, as well as an assortment of colorful vegetables, including chopped green onions, diced tomatoes and diced cucumbers. If you like, you can follow the lead of trendy restaurants and accompany the pancakes with goat cheese, smoked salmon or caviar.

And don't forget the chocolate coins!

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Lacy potato pancakes are easy to make by grating the potatoes and the onions in a food processor. To make serving the pancakes convenient at a party, saute them ahead of time, refrigerate them and reheat them in a single layer on baking sheets at 450 degrees for a few minutes. This also lets any excess oil escape and the pancakes become crisper.

Potato pancakes

Makes about 15 pancakes, or 4 to 5 servings

4 large potatoes (about 1 1/4 pounds), peeled

1 medium onion, optional

1 egg

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

2 tablespoons flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

about 1/2 cup oil for frying

sour cream, yogurt, applesauce

Grate potatoes and onions, using grating disk of food processor or large holes of grater. Transfer to colander. Squeeze mixture to press out as much liquid as possible. Transfer to bowl. Mix in egg, salt, pepper, flour and baking powder.

Heat 1/2 cup oil in deep, heavy 10- to 12-inch skillet. For each pancake, drop about 2 tablespoons potato mixture into pan. Flatten with back of spoon so each cake is about 2 1/2 to 3 inches in diameter. Fry over medium heat 4 to 5 minutes on each side, or until golden brown and crisp. Turn carefully so oil doesn't splatter. Drain on paper towels. Stir batter before frying each new batch. Add more oil to pan if necessary. Serve pancakes hot, accompanied by sour cream, yogurt, applesauce, cinnamon-sugar, or toppings below.

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Serve this easy topping with any potato pancake. For an extra festive touch, put a dollop of topping on each pancake, then add 1 teaspoon caviar or a few strips of lox.

Dill sour cream

Makes 1 cup

1 cup sour cream or yogurt

1 tablespoon snipped fresh dill

salt, white pepper

Mix sour cream and dill. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve at room temperature.

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This topping adds a Mediterranean touch to potato pancakes.

Yogurt-mint topping

Makes 1 cup

1 cup plain yogurt

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint

1 small clove garlic, finely minced

salt, white pepper

cayenne pepper

Mix yogurt with mint and garlic. Season to taste with salt, pepper and cayenne. Serve at room temperature.

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This richly flavored ragout, accented with cumin and thyme, makes a wonderful topping or accompaniment for potato pancakes.

Israeli mushroom ragout

Makes 6 to 8 servings as topping

1/4 cup olive oil or butter

1 medium onion, chopped

1 pound fairly small mushrooms, quartered

salt, freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon ground cumin

cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and saute about 7 minutes or until tender. Add mushrooms, salt and pepper to taste, thyme, paprika and cumin. Saute, stirring often, 15 to 20 minutes, or until mushrooms are well coated with spices and any liquid that accumulated in pan has evaporated. Reduce heat toward end of cooking time if necessary. Add cayenne. Taste and adjust seasonings. (Mushrooms can be kept, covered, 2 days in refrigerator. Reheat over medium heat.) Add parsley and serve.

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Salsa makes a fresh, zesty topping for potato pancakes and has the advantage of having no fat or dairy products. This spicy mixture is a popular dipping sauce in Israel.

Sephardic hot salsa

Makes about 2 1/2 cups

2 or 3 medium jalapeno peppers

1/4 cup garlic cloves

1 to 2 tablespoons water, optional

1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves

1/4 teaspoon salt

freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin, preferably freshly ground

1 pound ripe tomatoes, cut up

Wear gloves when handling hot peppers. Remove stems from peppers. Discard seeds and ribs, if desired (so salsa will be less hot). Puree garlic and peppers in food processor until finely chopped and well blended. If necessary, add water, just enough to enable food processor to chop mixture.

Add cilantro and process until blended. Add salt and pepper to taste and cumin. Remove from food processor. Add tomatoes to processor and puree them. Stir in jalapeno mixture.

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This stew makes a colorful, flavorful topping for potato pancakes. If you have any left the next day, serve it over rice or scramble it with eggs.

Spicy stewed peppers with tomatoes and onions

Makes 4 to 6 servings

3 to 4 tablespoons oil

2 large onions, chopped

4 to 6 large green or sweet red peppers (about 1 1/2 to 2 pounds), cored and diced small ( 1/4 - to 1/2 -inch dice)

4 large garlic cloves, chopped

3 (28-ounce) cans plum tomatoes, drained and chopped

1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes, or to taste

salt, freshly ground black pepper

Heat oil in large, wide casserole over low heat. Add onions and cook, stirring often, about 5 minutes or until soft but not brown. Add peppers and garlic and cook, stirring of ten, about 10 minutes or until peppers soften.

Add tomatoes, red pepper flakes and -- of salt and pepper. Cook, uncovered, over medium heat, stirring often, 30 to 40 minutes or until stew is thick. Taste and adjust seasonings.

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Whether served hot or cold, this compote is a delectable topping for potato pancakes. If you don't have pear brandy, you can flavor it instead with Grand Marnier.

Pear compote

with pear brandy

Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 pounds ripe pears

1/4 cup butter

6 to 7 tablespoons sugar

1/4 cup pear brandy

Peel pears. Halve, core and slice them. Heat butter in very large skillet. Add pears and turn slices over so both sides are coated with butter. Cook, uncovered, over low heat, stirring often, 15 to 20 minutes or until soft and some pears have fallen apart. Continue cooking over medium heat to evaporate some liquid.

Add 6 tablespoons sugar and cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until mixture is thick and dry. Remove compote from heat and stir in brandy. Taste and add more sugar if desired.

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Many people serve applesauce from a jar with their potato pancakes, but it can't compete with this luscious, homemade version. Serve it hot or cold.

Chunky cinnamon

applesauce

Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 pounds sweet or tart cooking apples

1/4 cup butter

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

4 to 6 tablespoons sugar, or to taste

Peel, halve and core apples. Cut them into thin wedges or slices.

Heat butter in large, heavy, deep saute pan or flameproof casserole. Add apples and saute over medium-high heat, turning pieces over from time to time, for 2 minutes or until they are coated with butter. Add lemon juice. Cover tightly and cook over low heat, stirring often, about 20 minutes or until apples are soft.

Stir in cinnamon and 4 tablespoons sugar. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until mixture is thick and nearly all the liquid in pan evaporates. Taste and add more sugar if desired. Heat briefly to dissolve sugar. Serve warm or cold.

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