The executive chef at Philadelphia's Abe Fisher makes some of the most next-level latkes in the country
Anyone who has ever been to a Hanukkah dinner arrives expecting the gold standard of traditional, delicious Jewish foods: kugel, challah, chicken schnitzel and various delightful things fried in oil, including sufganiyot, the soft, jelly-filled doughnuts, and latkes. While the crispy potato pancakes are typically served with a side of applesauce or sour cream, they also make a stellar vehicle to showcase more surprising flavors.
For Yehuda Sichel, executive chef of Philadelphia’s Abe Fisher, this refresh is integral to his cooking. Part of the the CookNSolo restaurant empire that also includes Zahav and Federal Donuts, the sleek little spot in Center City is known for infusing fresh flavors into classic Jewish staples—there’s borscht tartare served with a dollop of smoked trout roe, scooped up with ranch potato chips, Hungarian duck with schmaltz rice and pretzel steamed buns baked in house, and, in a twist on the soda fountain favorite, a bacon and egg cream with maple custard. “The common denominator with all of them,” says Sichel, who was raised eating the traditional version of these foods, “is how I wish they tasted. How they could taste.” Take the latke, for example. “Even when they’re burnt, or not seasoned enough, or not crispy, or super-greasy. They’re still really good.” But the chef aimed to perfect the recipe—one that yielded crispy, creamy on the inside, well-seasoned latkes.
Sichel started to develop recipes for Abe Fisher while still working as the sous chef at Zahav. “It was a slow night—they dont have those anymore—and I told Mike, ‘I’m going to make the perfect latkes with four ingredients: eggs, potatoes, flour, and salt.’” While chef Solomonov didn’t think the latkes needed flour, Sichel set out to prove him wrong. After frying potato pancakes for the better part of the night, he settled on the recipe. “[Mike] accepted the flour, but thought it was too eggy, so I scaled back on the egg and we’ve actually kept that ratio to this day.” More than the precise recipe, though, Sichel’s takeaway from the experiment was that technique is paramount, which brings us to his first tip for spectacular latkes:
Master your technique.
“I realized they have to fry slowly. We fry ours for almost ten minutes on each side. You absolutely can’t rush it because you want that beautiful, even, golden brown color, and you want ensure the inside is cooked, because if it’s not, you don’t get that creamy potato business on the inside.”
To avoid a crumbling potato pancake, baby them a little and don’t rush the flip.
Prep the the ingredients first.
Sichel tells his cooks to crack the eggs into the mixing bowl, along with the flour and salt, before grating the Idaho potatoes, so they don’t oxidize. (The restaurant uses a food processor with the grater attachment since they make forty pounds of latkes each night, but he says a box grater is good for home use.) The pan should be ready, too, on a medium-high heat. “It’s not the end of the world if your potatoes oxidize. It doesn’t change the taste, but it’ll go from a white, creamy interior to a gray, which is a little off-putting.”
Don’t squeeze out the water.
Some people squeeze out the excess water from the potatoes, but Sichel says that’s a mistake. “I think that liquid is starchy goodness,” he says, “It’s the same idea as pasta water, when it gets really starchy it makes the best pan sauces.”
Get creative with your toppings.
While Sichel doesn’t deviate from his time-tested recipe, the chef mixes it up with fresh toppings, including sour cream and caviar or scrambled eggs and cheddar cheese and black truffle. And while Sichel says they’ve used the pancakes as a vehicle for “more luxurious things” like salmon tartare and beef tartare, this year for the restaurant’s annual Hanukkah dinner, they’ll come with elevated versions of the classic dipping sauces: house-made sour cream, applesauce spiced with the Yemen blend by spicemaster Lior Sercarz, and green tomato ketchup. “We were an applesauce family,” says Sichel. “There’s always the applesauce versus sour cream debate, but as an American, you can’t forget about ketchup.” Abe Fisher’s take will be made with green tomatoes, puréed parsley and watercress to give it an herbaceous flavor and brighten the color, vinegar, garlic powder, onions and a little high fructose corn syrup, “to make it traditional Heinz flavored,” he jokes.
Pair them with cider.
According to the restaurant's GM and beverage director Brian Kane, Sichel’s latkes are best paired with a bubbly cider. “The effervescence will elevate everything,” he says. Two of his favorites right now are the approachable, relatively fruity Pennsylvania-local Big Hill Standard cider, and Aval from Brittany. “It’s a traditional French cider with not only the high, bright acid, but a little more of those tertiary notes to bring more of a roundness to the experience, as opposed to just cutting through the decadence of the fried potato.”