Last Friday night was the start of Hanukkah, the eight-day "Festival of Lights" during which Jews mark the rededication of the holy Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by Syrian-Greeks in 165 B.C. (It is most definitely not, as Versus was once told by a middle school teacher, "the Jewish Christmas.") According to the Talmud, when the temple was reclaimed, there was only enough oil to keep the temple's eternal flame burning for one day. Miraculously, it burned for eight days.
God bless the Jews who turn to fried foods, specifically latkes or potato pancakes, as a way of honoring that miracle container of oil. While it may be heresy to eat packaged, store-bought latkes instead of homemade, Versus is acquainted with a few modern Jews to take this route for convenience. This week Versus samples two brands available at your local grocery store, Manischewitz and Golden, to find the superior latke.
The contents of a box of Manischewitz Homestyle Potato Latke Mix looks like a combination of instant mashed potato flakes and Lipton onion soup mix. To this dry base you add two beaten eggs and a cup of cold water. After allowing the mixture to thicken for a few minutes (a critical step!), you drop them into hot oil by the tablespoon and fry them up into golden glory. The Manischewitz batter is rather wet and loose (perhaps using slightly less water would be a better idea) and out of the twelve latkes made, only four of them managed to hold their shape and be recognized as a complete potato pancake. Structural issues aside, the latkes did get nice crispy, caramel-colored crusts that contrasted nicely with the soft, steamy insides. Overall, though, the latkes were quite dry with an almost scratchy texture (consider giving the shredded dehydrated potatoes in the batter a few more minutes to soften and soak up moisture before frying). The flavor, true to the appearance of its dry mix, is like a cross between instant mashed potatoes and Lipton onion soup: not bad, weirdly comforting, decidedly onion-y.
Golden Potato Pancakes
Golden Potato Pancakescome eight to a box, already browned and preformed into flat little discs. You simply drop them into a pan of hot oil and them cook until heated through. Instead of a shredded potato texture like Manischewitz, Golden aims for mashed and fluffy, and here it falls quite a bit short. The texture is mushy, like cardboard meets sponge and, like a sponge, the latkes simply soak up all the oil they're being fried in, giving them lots of Wessonality, but not much else. Golden's latkes also have a heavy onion flavor, but it's mostly bracing, without any sweetness.
Verdict: If you have the time or the grandmother, go for homemade latkes. Both Manischewitz and Golden carry two of the fatal flaws of processed foods: problematic texture and one-dimensional flavor. A few dollops of creme fraice and chopped parsley help here, but not much. Because it requires a few fresh ingredients, allows for recipe tweaking, and shares at least a few characteristics of actual cooking, Manischewitz prevails over Golden. With a little creativity, you may be able to turn these latkes into something worth celebrating.
Manischewtiz latkes in the background; Golden latkes in the front.