Have Potato, Will Travel

Published December, 2008

Grandmother Nancy Rothstein uses the versatile and delicious potato to teach Jewish tradition

When Nancy Rothstein's children Andrew, 30, and Jodi, 32, were in elementary school, she made a decision: Armed with potatoes, a food processor, and an electric frying pan, Rothstein became the emissary for Jewish holiday tradition in their small Monroe, N.Y., community, going to her children’s elementary school and making her crispy, crunchy latkes. Soon enough, she became known around town as "The Latke Lady."

"We were one of the few Jewish families in [each] class and their teachers were always looking for someone to come in and explain how other families celebrate the holidays," says Rothstein, who is the assistant director of the Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Council of Orange County, N.Y.

Unlike her children, who were  a minority in their school, Rothstein and her husband, Bruce, grew up in Los Angeles and New York City, respectively, areas where, she says "being Jewish was the norm" and where during the holiday season finding "menorahs in most of the windows of people’s homes and businesses" was common.

When her children reached their teens, Rothstein’s latke demonstrations fell by the wayside because, she says, "having your mother at school making pancakes can be embarrassing." But she is anxious to reclaim her status as the Latke Lady  with her grandchildren, Leo, 3 1/2, Cecelia, 22 months, and Juliet, born November 4, who live in Englewood, N.J., with their dad, Andrew, and their mom, Elysha.

While the kids are still too young to help her make latkes it's never too early to munch. When the three generations of Rothsteins gather every year for Chanukah, she gets to expose the tots to her famous potato creations.

"I look forward to my grandkids getting older so I can cook with them," she says. "For now, having my family together for Chanukah and sharing laughs, gifts, and potato pancakes will do."

Potato Pancakes
Practice makes perfect potato pancakes: when Nancy Rothstein, the Latke Lady, makes them for Chanukah

Money was tight so presents were really just a small part of the holiday,"  says Nancy Rothstein, the Latke Lady. It was a holiday where her family "just had dinner and spent time together," including dining on the Chanukah staple, latkes.

"My mom, Frances Edelman, always made wonderful potatoes pancakes and my grandmother, on my dad’s side, Celia Spivak, made cauliflower pancakes. No matter what I do, I can’t seem to replicate the cauliflower ones," she says. Through the years, she has tried all kinds of pancakes: cherry cheese, zucchini, sweet potato; but the favorite is always potato, her mother’s recipe.

Since she lives in "apple country," she often picks apples in the fall, makes homemade applesauce, and puts it in the freezer for Chanukah. Her kids and grandkids love applesauce with her latkes, although she personally prefers sour cream.

Rothstein recommends keeping young children out of the kitchen while the pancakes cook since the process involves a lot of hot, spattering oil.

4 large potatoes, finely grated
1 medium onion, finely grated
2 eggs
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Salt and pepper to taste
Vegetable oil for frying

1. Peel and grate the potatoes by hand, using the large holes of a box grater (or use a food processor), into a bowl of cold water so they do not turn brown. Grate the onions into a separate bowl. When you are done, squeeze out as much water as possible from the potatoes and the onions and set aside. In a large bowl, combine eggs, flour, baking powder, salt and pepper. Stir in the potatoes and onions and mix well.
2. Heat oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Drop the batter by spoonfuls into the hot oil. Flatten latkes slightly while frying, turning when the first side is crispy and browned. Remove from the pan when golden on both sides. If the remaining potato mixture gets watery add a small amount of flour.
3. Drain the latkes on paper towels when they are done and store them in tin foil. You can freeze them between sheets of tin foil and heat them as you need them, or serve immediately. Serve hot with applesauce or sour cream.

Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings.

The Latke Lady's Apple Cake
Nancy Rothstein's recipe for a glorious cake chock-full of raisins and nuts and bursting with apples

Nancy Rothstein lives in Monroe, N.Y., where apple orchards are plentiful. She makes homemade applesauce to accompany her Chanukah latke spread, and will often use the leftover apples to make a spiced apple cake, a favorite with her kids. Rothstein uses a springform pan to make removing the cake easier, and to avoid losing any of the crumbly topping. This cake does not freeze well, she advises, so serve it on the day it is made, or the following day.

1 cup oil
2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
4 eggs
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup orange juice
6 apples, peeled and sliced into eighths
Raisins to taste
Coarsely chopped walnuts to taste
Spice mix: 3 tablespoons sugar and 2 teaspoons cinnamon

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9-inch springform pan with butter or non-stick spray.
2. Mix oil and sugar in a bowl. Add eggs one at a time, stirring to combine, and then add vanilla.
3. Combine the flour, salt, and baking powder in a separate bowl. Add the well-mixed dry ingredients to the creamed egg mixture alternately with the orange juice and mix until well combined.
4. Pour a layer of batter in the pan, then a layer of apples and sprinkle some nuts, raisins, and the spice mixture. Add another layer of batter and repeat the process. End with a layer of batter and the nuts and spice mixture. Do not put raisins on the top as they will burn. Keep the layers at least 2 inches below the top of the pan to leave room for the cake to rise.
5. Bake for about 1 hour and 15 minutes. It may take a little longer depending on the moisture content of the apples. When the cake is cooled, remove from pan and dust with confectioners’ sugar.

Yield: Makes 1 9-inch cake.