A Latke to Celebrate
Liz Neumark’s career as a notable chef and entrepreneur began in 1980 when she founded Great Performances, which has grown into a premier catering and events company in New York City. In 2007, Neumark and her husband, Chaim Wachsberger, also founded The Sylvia Center in honor of their daughter; the non-profit focuses on helping children and their families cook and eat healthy foods, and is attached to Katchkie Farm in Kinderhook, N.Y.
“Through Great Performances, we collaborate on creating exquisite events that help raise awareness and support for The Sylvia Center,” explains Neumark about the partnership between the two organizations.
One such event is the Latke Festival, a latke competition and holiday celebration held annually in Brooklyn. The unique gathering draws hundreds of attendees and more than a dozen participating restaurants from around the city.
“The Latke Festival started as a way to celebrate the holiday season and bring in an enthusiastic crowd to join us in our love of food,” says Neumark. “We weren’t sure if the Latke Festival would be a one-off event, but the response was overwhelming, so we felt the need to continue and now the ninth edition is coming up.”
To learn more about the event and the role latkes play in celebrating Hanukkah, we spoke with Liz Neumark ahead of the 9th Annual Latke Festival set for December 18 at the Brooklyn Museum.
Traditional Hanukkah Food
“As the Hanukkah story goes, in the second century B.C., the Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, fought against the oppressive Syrian king in Jerusalem, who forced them to practice the Greek religion, instructed soldiers to kill thousands, and destroyed the Second Temple,” Neumark explains. “The Maccabees rebelled and within two years drove the Syrians out and rededicated the temple, rebuilding the altar and lighting the menorah. According to the story, there was only enough olive oil to light the menorah for one day and it instead lasted eight nights, thus being deemed ‘The Miracle of Hanukkah’ and deeming Hanukkah ‘The Festival of Lights.'”
Neumark notes that Hanukkah is a Hebrew word that means “dedication,” and that latkes – “potato pancakes traditionally made with grated potato and onion” – are one of the “delicious fried foods” traditionally served during Hanukkah. According to her, a good latke should have “a crispy, crunchy exterior and a moist, chewy inside.”
“I know people hate the word ‘moist,'” says Neumark, “but who likes a dry latke?”
Latkes with a Twist
Latkes were chosen as the festival’s centerpiece because the humble potato pancake isn’t often in the spotlight, despite its reputation as a must-have holiday recipe.
“The latke is the underdog food of the holiday season,” Neumark says. “It usually receives little attention with all the cookies, holiday hams, and other foods everywhere this season.”
Though it is a traditional Hanukkah food, those competing in the festival are encouraged to create unconventional latkes dressed up in a variety of ways.
“We chose latkes also because they are a universal food – a canvas for creative interpretation,” Neumark tells us. “The competition element is intended to keep the event fun, but give the chefs motivation to create really unique, well-executed versions of the potato pancake.”
Two top honors are dished out at the Latke Festival each year: the Judges’ Choice and People’s Choice awards. The judging panel is made up of notable New Yorkers, which this year includes Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, while the People’s Choice Award is voted on by the event’s attendees.
“A favorite from last year is Shelsky’s of Brooklyn, which won the People’s Choice Award,” says Neumark. “[Shelsky’s created] ‘The Great Gatsby,’ a caraway-seeded potato latke stuffed with honey mustard, topped with horseradish cream cheese and their wonderful pastrami smoked salmon.”
Last year’s Judges’ Choice Award winner was Benchmark, which served a cranberry and juniper latke topped with smoked duck leg confit and spicy pickled cucumber. In addition to the latkes made by 18 competing restaurants, representatives from The Sylvia Center also created curried parsnip and potato latkes with apple chutney.
“The planning for the Latke Festival is year-round and starts with recruiting restaurants,” Neumark says. “The restaurants are the backbone of the festival – what makes it special, creates hype, and, of course, bring excellent and delicious food to our hungry guests. Since it is a fundraiser for The Sylvia Center, we also begin recruiting sponsors about a year in advance.”
The event is sponsored by global brands like Tito’s Handmade Vodka and German cutlery maker Wüsthof, as well as a number of local businesses and organizations.
“We are so grateful to those who continue working with us every year – and those who are new this year,” Neumark says. “It’s always exciting to build these new partnerships with such a fun, festive event!”
As for what attendees can expect from the competing latkes this year, Neumark emphasizes the opportunity chefs have to incorporate unusual and locally sourced ingredients into their recipes.
“We hope this year’s chefs will showcase more experimental ingredients, such as plantain [used by Mediterranean tavern TESSA last year] and Mae Mae Café’s pairing with Mike’s Hot Honey,” Neumark says, referring to a Brooklyn-based brand of chili-infused honey that sources from hives in Upstate New York. “We love the idea of bringing local craft ingredients into the mix!”
Lots of Latkes
Want to get into the Latke Festival spirit at home? Try your hand at making the traditional latke recipe below, and then experiment with an Asian-inspired, carrot, or Indian spiced latke recipe from Liz Neumark.
- 5 medium potatoes
- 1 large white onion
- 3 medium eggs
- ½ cup cornstarch
- Freshly ground pepper and coarse salt to taste
Begin by peeling and grating all the potatoes and onion with your large-hole grater. Next, wrap the potatoes in cheesecloth and ring out the excess liquid. Once you feel you have removed as much liquid as possible, continue to ring the potatoes out further. Combine potatoes, onions, eggs, cornstarch, and preferred amount of salt and pepper in a large mixing bowl. Stir until all ingredients are mixed well. Form the mixture into palm sized pancakes and carefully place into cast iron skillet. Allow to brown on each side for one to two minutes. Once you have reached a golden brown color, remove from pan and place onto cooling rack.
Serve with cranberry sauce, sour cream, and chunky apple sauce.