“If you’re Jewish and at an event, I probably made the latkes,” Douglas Weinstein told me last week, as I watched him mix eggs with shredded potatoes in the kitchen of Congregation B’nai B’rith (CBB) in the hills above Santa Barbara. “I’ll be working on them for a couple hours every day for the next week.”
A lifelong professional cook, caterer, and cafe owner who now works in tech sales, Weinstein is making about 2,500 latkes for CBB and the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara this season. Both organizations host a number of parties each Hanukkah, which started on December 2 and ends December 10 this year, and Weinstein’s crisp potato pancakes are the stars of the show.
Hanukkah is the Jewish holiday that celebrates the retaking of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem from the Greeks in the second century BCE. The Jews found only one urn of olive oil to light the temple’s menorah, but it miraculously lasted for eight days, long enough for a new batch of oil to be made. Known today as the “festival of lights,” Hanukkah is celebrated by lighting the menorah each night and eating fried foods. That includes jelly doughnuts and latkes, which became a popular holiday treat in Eastern Europe during the 1800s. Said Weinstein, “Anything fried is a mitzvah.”
Weinstein cooks as a volunteer for each organization, and they both request about 1,000 or so latkes be made. “But between me and the people who walk through the kitchen, we need at least 200 more,” said Weinstein, who grew up eating latkes in Los Angeles and started cooking in restaurants as a teenager. “Latkes are like Lay’s potato chips — no one can eat just one!”
To make 100 latkes an hour, Weinstein relies on packaged hash browns to fill these tall orders, which are frozen once fried and then reheated in the oven as needed for the eight days of parties. For a more traditional style, start by peeling, shredding, and squeezing all the water out of three russet potatoes. Chop them further, according to style desired — some like their latkes very fine, like mashed potatoes, while others prefer more hash-brown consistency. (Weinstein aims for the middle ground.)
Add three large eggs, a little bit of dried onion, a binding agent (which could be regular flour, rice flour, matzoh, instant mashed potatoes, or gluten-free options), and salt and pepper to taste. “And I always throw in baking powder,” said Weinstein. “It makes them puff up a bit.”
Put an eighth of an inch of oil in a pan — he recommends grapeseed oil — and, once shimmering, plop in your small scoops of potatoes. Weinstein lets them cook a little before pressing the blobs down into discs, then spins them as they cook. Once the underside is a dark gold, flip them over and finish the job. Serve hot and crunchy with sour cream and applesauce.
“I cook so much here, even when I don’t cook, I get credit for it,” said Weinstein of his volunteer efforts, which include 400 pounds of brisket for CBB’s biggest party and a weekly gig for about 55 senior citizens at the Federation’s Schmooze Room. “It’s kind of embarrassing.”
When I finally bite into one of his creations, I’m pretty sure it’s the best latke I’ve ever had — expertly seasoned, crunchy yet fluffy, airy but substantial. As he lets me out the front door, Weinstein calls out to his son, Julian, who is killing time in the CBB lobby as Dad cooks away. “Want a latke?” he says as the door closes. Julian, of course, does, and so do I, scarfing one more as I get into my truck.
Try Weinstein’s latkes at one of the following events:
Congregation B’nai B’rith
Hanukkah Cabaret: Wed., Dec. 5, 6:30 p.m., $20-$40; cbbsb.org/cabaret
Hanukkah & Hilarity Comedy Night: Thu. Dec. 6, 4:30 p.m., $8-$10
12th Annual Vodka Latke Young Adult Holiday Party: Sat., Dec. 8, 7 p.m., $15-$25
Family Hanukkah Party: Mon. Dec. 10, 5 p.m.