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Matzo balls and latkes?

I don't know from Jewish food. Grew up in the Northwest where there are no Jewish eating establishments. Spent most of my adult life in the Bay Area where there are almost none (well, none that get any respect).

The other day was a dreary drippy one, so a little Jewish soul food seemed about right to warm things up. I tried out a nearby place that had "N.Y." in it's name. I'd never had matzoh ball soup or latkes so I was hoping for a revelation.

The soup broth was wimpy and didn't taste like it could cure anything. It contained an object the size of a baseball and almost as sturdy. To eat the thing, I had to spear it with my fork and carve it. It had no discernible chicken flavor, or any other flavor for that matter. .

The latkes seemed to have been fried up yesterday and taken out and reheated in another round of oil, which had gotten absorbed to the max. They seemed to have been made from pre-cooked potatoes instead of raw ones, giving it more of a potato patty texture than a potato pancake character. They came with sour cream "we're out of applesauce". I gave up on them after a couple of bites.

So, what is the yardstick for rating matzoh ball soup? How do you judge latkehood excellence?

My own excellent (pat on the back!) potato pancakes are based on ones I had at a wonderful bygone place called the German Beer Garden in what is now called Silicon Valley. They are thin and very crisp, and topped with applesauce. They go very well with bratwurst of the big, white, fine-ground varety. Is this identical to latkes?

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  1. Latkes: What you describe is a latke. There is no one way to make a latke, though there very well may be some wrong ways, like using fatback! My personal annual quota for latkes is one. Too heavy for me. Even the light ones. From my perspective, if you listen to experienced latke eaters or makers, criticism outmatches praise by something like a billion to one.

    Matzoh ball Soup: The 'soup' part should be delicious on its own. The matzoh balls should taste like matzoh(!) which is indeed a fairly plain flavor, but one that is distinctive.
    There is no single 'correct' matzoh ball density. Some like 'em fluffy, some dense. I like mine on the firmer side.

    Try making matzoh brie (rhymes with fry) sometime. Over on the home cooking board, you should be able to find a recipe. Basically, there are two main ingredients, matzoh and eggs. The rest is up to you. I can't imagine mine without fried onions. This will give you a good idea of the delights of using matzoh in cooking!

    4 Replies
    1. re: Steve

      Best to spell it "brei." Otherwise, people will make it with matzoh & cheese.

        1. re: Morganna

          Alright, but we're using your pan. Because fried brie sounds very messy.

          1. re: small h

            *grin* Well, I'd probably coat it with matzo meal so it's breaded. ;D I've seen recipes for stuff like that. Nice crust on the outside, held on by an egg wash and the rind, then the brie inside is REALLY runny. :)

    2. It sounds like you went to a place that capitolized on the fact that they were the only restaurant of their type in the area and either got lazy or just don't know how to make these foods. Your version of a latke sounds right. Reheating never seems to work well, and should always be made fresh if possible. Sour cream is another traditional accompaniments if served with a dairy meal or not in a kosher establishment.
      As for the mazto balls, they sound like they are in the "sinker" category while many people are familiar with the "floater" categories. My great aunt was in the sinker category and my dad tells stories about breaking fillings and walls (I hope these are jokes.) When sinkers are made, they should never be made large enough to fill a bowl on its own ad should still have flavor. Many who make matzo balls use the recipe from the back of a matzo meal or matzo ball mix. I'm experimenting with stuffed and spiced varieties but this is the basic type and most popular.

      2 Replies
      1. re: TampaAurora

        Reheating latkes works very well if you freeze them first, and then reheat them in the oven on a baking sheet. Refrying them is a very bad idea.

        1. re: small h

          At this point I'm convinced that you can freeze them but reheated they will never compare to fresh. I've reached the point where I just serve them out of the pan, don't even let them sit around while I finish a batch. That means I don't get any until everyone else has eaten their fill, but it's worth it for the rave reviews. And I'm in the shredded camp. The other kind makes me think of some weird fast food potato breakfast thing.

      2. My parents were Protestant German immigrants. I grew up on potato pancakes and applesauce, and was an adult before I realized that these synonymous with latkes. As you undoubltedly know, since you make them, they are best just-made. If they MUST be made ahead, they should be held or reheated in a hot oven. Refrying is for beans, not latkes.

        1. I second Steve (though I think it's spelled "brei," no?).

          I wouldn't judge latkes based on your experience. They're potato pancakes, so you already like latkes. You just don't like poorly executed food. As for matzoh balls, yeah, there's just not much going on.

          But don't take matzoh balls as proof that Jewish food (which, like every other X food, is diverse, even with the unfortunate ban on shellfish and pork) is bland in general. After all, IIRC, the Jews of Rome are responsible for twice-fried artichokes; Sephardic cuisine relies on (almost) all the same goodies other cuisines of the Mediterranean do; and from smoked fish to sour pickles to horseradish (not that any of those things are exclusive to Jews), there's plenty of pungency to go around.

          1. As Steve says, there are lots of ways to make latkes. In my experience, most restaurants that offer them have the type of prefab, mashed-potato pancake thing you describe. My own are much closer to Swiss rõsti - shredded potatoes with a bit of grated onion, some egg, and almost no flour or matzoh meal, fried so they come out really crisp. But as I say, you almost never see this kind when dining out as they need to be made at the last minute and most places would rather do a stack and reheat them as needed.

            Matzo balls at their best are nothing to get excited about, and at their worst are like trying to eat hardened balls of library paste.

            1. Latkees - There are two types, shredded and extruded. Jfood grew up on the extruded kind where he was in charge as a 10 year old in turning the knob on his grandmother's device that ground and extruded the potatoes and onion. Mrs jfood grew up with the shredded. Over the years jfood has moved completely into the shredded camp. Basically shred as many potatoes as you would like and shred up a few onions to taste in a different bowl. Jfood washes the potatoes and then squeezes as much of the liquid out as possible, the adds the shredded onions which had the water pushed out as well. He adds a little flour as binder and S&P. Big pan of some oil, a heaping tablespon and flatten slightly. Brown one side, flip (always avoiding the splattering grease) and brown second side. These are very light. Their cousins using the extruded method come out much denser and heavier. Always serve with apple sauce. Others will always serve with sour cream, personal choice.

              Matzah Ball - two categories again. Floaters and sinkers. jfood grew up with sinkers, his MIL makes floaters. He has never made either as he is banished from the kitchen during this girls-only event.

              BTW - jfood has never tasted a good latkee from a store.

              2 Replies
              1. re: jfood

                A vote for shredded w/ sour cream (as long as the cholesterol level allows.).

                1. re: Passadumkeg

                  mmmm....MATZO balls! They should be firm but fluffy, not too big, not too small and the broth should be rich, flavorful and clear. When you make them from scratch at home, use club soda and chicken fat.

                  BUT, meanwhile, go and get a Streit's kit in a box, they're pretty good and very easy, but I like to throw some celery onions and carrots in the broth and make sure you chill the batter very well and wet your hands to make the balls. Throw a little finely chopped parsley in there. Even this will change your mind.

              2. Jfood explained matzohballs right - they're either sinkers or floaters - baseballs you have to chip away at, or softer, lighter dumplings. There are devotees to both. But the real key is the soup. It's essentially a light stock consomme, and it needs to be the most chickeny thing you ever ate. I've had incredible chicken soup in Jewish delis and in Chinese restaurants - but it's rare. About 1 in 100 have a truly delicious version. At home, a whole old fowl (stewing chicken) needs to be sacrificed, along with some chicken feet or additional wings to develop the gelatinous mouthfeel. Users of pre-cooked carcasses and chefs that try to save the meat to eat, need not apply. A trick - expensive but works well - is to use 2 chickens serially - in other words, use the stock from chicken 1 to cook chicken 2. In any case, imagine the most chickeny taste you can - that's the right soup.

                1 Reply
                1. re: applehome

                  <baseballs you have to chip away at, or softer, lighter dumplings>

                  No and yes. The erstaz "floater" matzoh balls are really dumplings; Applehome's use of this word is good.

                  OTOH, a matzoh ball is denser but still tender; if you have too "chip away at it" it's not made well. Getting the right balance is a little harder than the dumplings; they should should float after a minute or two of cooking but sink soon after getting them in the bowl. And if you're getting "sinkers" as large as a baseball they are almost certainly going to be cannonballs. Golf ball size (before cooking) is about right; they'll fluff up just enough to float during cooking and remain slightly larger than uncooked later.

                  The comments about the broth are spot on; it should be delicious by itself. The same is true about matzoh balls.

                2. With the exception of German style food fairs (along the lines of Oktoberfest), where potato pancakes are made in greater quantities and far faster than usual - I've never had a latke or anything of its ilk that compared to eating my mom's a few minutes after they've been cooked. Tradition in my house for eating latkes usually results in a few people eating in shifts to get them as fresh as possible.

                  One variation on the potato pancake/latke that I've heard about but never tried is frying them in goose fat. That's supposed to add something really amazing.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: cresyd

                    Wow - that's weird - three years of living in the black forest with oktoberfests and weinnachtsmarkets attended in Stuttgart, Munich, Nuremburg, even up to Koln, once, and I never saw a latke. Never even saw one on a menu in a restaurant. Lots of brotchen stuffed with fish (all kinds - smoked, pickled), schnitzels, you name it... and schmaltzbrot (there's your goosefat) and schinkenbrot, pretzels, beir in October and gluhwein in December. I saw almost zero Jewish/Yiddish foods or culture. I've just never associated latkes with Germany - only with the Jewish side of my family and usually, only for Chanukah. Perhaps it's a Hoch-Deutsch, or northern Germany thing, I spent most of my time mit Schwabs and Bayernische folks.

                    But you're right about fresh-fried potatoes. Whether latkes, frites, chips, or even McDonald's, there's an expiration timer - and it's usually not that long.

                    1. re: applehome

                      Ditto - I lived for a while up north in Hamburg - Hoch-Deutsch central - and remember plenty of pfannküchen but none made with kartoffeln. But I was young then and didn't get out to restaurants a lot, they may have existed.

                      1. re: applehome

                        I realize I did not make this clear - but when I said "German style festivals" - I was referring to those in the United States.

                    2. Not to hijack your thread, but the topic of finding good Jewish deli food, whether in NYC, Chicago, etc. could be a whole thread by itself. It ain't what it used to be!

                      I no longer oder deli out, but make it at home. Truthfully, not that fond of latkes (or fried food in general), but like to use Yukon Gold, shredded in food processor, with eggs, matzo meal, s&p, maybe some chives or onions. Needs to be fried in hot veg oil. Make sure you drain out all the water from potatoes, that makes them crisp. Fresh from the pan are best, if you can't manage that, fry 75% done, freeze IQF, heat on rack in hot oven.

                      As for matzo balls, others have given you good advice. I prefer floaters, mixes are anathema to me, they are ridiculously easy to make. Tip is to use club soda or seltzer for the water, to make them fluffy. I like to season mine with white peppers, salt & chopped dill. Always have good, rich homemade chicken stock on hand, needs to taste like chicken. If you can't manage that, College Inn is a decent substitute, do not dilute.

                      1. When growing up, my mother not only used matzoh balls in soup, but use to put a different spin on them by sprinking cinnamon and sugar on them and giving them to us kids for a treat (of course on a plate not in soup). She was brought up with the different uses and when I've had friends try them with the sugar and cinnamon sprinkled on top, they're pleasantly surprised.. Regarding reheating latkes...I've been successful reheating them in an oven directly on the rack. I put foil on the next rack down to catch anything.

                        1. MMMMM I am a big fan of both matzo ball soup and latkas. Growing up outside Boro Park has put me in easy acess to both. As for latkas, I find that the difference between latkas and potato pancakes is the amount of egg and flour you use. When I make them, I make sure that I put all of my shredded vegetables into a salad spinner to get rid of any excess liquids (thank Alton Brown)... So that when you fry them, they don't soak up as much oil.

                          As for matzo balls, I am a fan of the lighter floating ones. The best way to enjoy matzo balls is with a rich, strong chicken broth. Since any matzo ball is relatively plain, you need a richer broth for balance. Does anyone have an easy fool proof recipe for matzo balls, mine are usually the sinkers:(

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: fayyeeyee

                            Even more effective that the salad spinner is to wrap the shredded potato in a plain white cotton tea towel, bring the corners together to make a sealed bundle, and then twist the knot at the top like a tourniquet. Gets out all the excess liquid, essential for maximum crispness.

                            Of course, it stains the towel brown, and the stain doesn't wash out, so I have a dedicated latke towel. No well-equipped kitchen should be without one!

                            1. re: BobB

                              jfood has his potato towel right next to his garlic press. Love them both.

                            2. re: fayyeeyee

                              These are floaters, not sinkers, the addition of club soda or seltzer is what makes them fluffy:

                              8 eggs
                              1/2 cup club soda or seltzer water
                              1/2 cup canola oil
                              2 cups matzo meal
                              1 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp white pepper
                              3 T dried dill weed (optional)
                              Beat eggs with oil and water till fluffy, add seasoning. Gradually add matzo meal till incorporated. Refrigrate mixture for 30-45 minutes. When ready to make, bring 8 qt pot of water to boil with 2T salt (very important to cook in salted water, as this adds flavor). Rinse hands in cold water, shake excess water off very well. Make golf ball size balls, drop in boiling, salted water. Should get 25-30 matzo balls. When all balls are in pot, lower to light simmer, cover and time 30 minutes. When you think balls should be done, uncover, remove one, stick toothpick in to middle, should be cooked all the way through. If not, cook a few minutes more. Drain very well in one layer in colander. When thoroughly drained, freeze or refrigerate.
                              This makes 25-30 medium size matzo balls. I don't care for large ones, but I assume you can make those, just allow additional cooking time. When making soup, heat soup first, then add defrosted balls at last minute, just long enough to warm, so the soup won't be too starchy.

                            3. Sounds like you ate in a crappy restaurant. I would say the version of matzoball soup you had was greek dinner version. Latkes aren't an everyday food and I don't think to be eaten alone. If you want to hear a funny story about latkes and get a kick-butt recipe, check out my blogpost "Green latkes and red chai, oh my" on:

                              1. In our family, we use finely-ground white pepper to season the matzo balls. I'm not sure why that started, but my father used to season them at the table with white pepper and would say that was what they used to do in Vienna when he was a child, so maybe it was specific to that community. We also add a generous dash of ginger. My mother grinds fresh ginger, I use the ground stuff, and it adds wonderful flavor either way.

                                For the chicken stock, we - and most of our extended family - often add a turkey neck to the mix, which also greatly enriches the flavor.

                                1. When making matzo balls for chicken soup, as opposed to a simple broth, do you add the raw matzo balls to salted boiling water then transfer to soup pot or serving bowl or do you cook the matzo balls in the soup?

                                  5 Replies
                                  1. re: HillJ

                                    Hill, you really could do either way. My preference, because I usually make 30 at a time way in advance of serving, is to do in salted water. I find if you cook the matzo balls in chicken soup, it makes the soup very starchy, just as I cook noodles separately in water. It's your personal preference.

                                    1. re: Diane in Bexley

                                      Di-I'm glad I asked. I wasn't sure if I could compare the starch factor with pasta or rice; both of which I do separately and add. Thanks for the info-separate it is.

                                      1. re: Diane in Bexley

                                        Same here. I add a bit of fat from the soup to the mix and then boil my floaters in salted water. First, it's easier to pull them out to serve them since I also package them separately in the fridge. Second, I don't want the broth to become starchy. Third, I don't want them to soak up all that soup since whenever I make mazto balls I am also making my soup from scratch that day (I don't care what my husband says - a kosher chicken is the key to great Jewish Penecillin or at least to recreating my grandmother's version.)

                                        1. re: Diane in Bexley

                                          Thank you for the quick reply yesterday. My first attempt at matzo balls went very well. I made the "batter" easily from a recipe I found on a Jewish celebrations website calling for seltzer (which I read made for lighter results). I followed the tips to wet your fingers as you create the individual balls, perfect. I had a pot of salted water boiling away and dropped those pretty babies in. They FLOATED...which made this newbie very happy indeed...and then I transferred the entire batch in the chicken soup I had made in the morning. Served the soup for dinner last night to raves. No longer afraid and very satisfied with the results.

                                          1. re: HillJ

                                            sinkers in my family

                                            not shredded latkes in my family, more like a minced potato and onion base, lots of white pepper.

                                      2. when i grate the potatos(idaho baking potato), i do one potato, then grate my onion, then grate the rest of the potatos. this prevents the potatos from turning green. i use peanut oil to fry them in. peanut oil can be heated to a very hot temp., and that is perfect for frying latkes. eat immediately, otherwise they lose their light and crispy texture. linda z

                                        1. I am an Irish girl, but a big fan of matzo ball soup. First, you must have an exemplary chicken soup (think chicken poached in homemade chicken stock. Then you pulverize matzo's and make a dumpling mixture with them, adding lots of chives and parsley, and aiming for a texture that just holds together. You cook your matzo balls in water, not in the soup, otherwise you get nasty, cloudy soup. If you've done everything right, you're in heaven. (BTW, leftover matzo balls freeze very well, and make an excellent side -- with gravy -- to almost any meal.) Experiment, and you will be glad you did.