Add just a smidgen of sugar to tea or coffee-even the darkest Turkish brew-and it then becomes undrinkable to me. I find sweetened sodas, candies, and most desserts thoroughly unappealing. But a light sprinkle of sugar melting into a hot, oniony potato latke? That's the way my grandmother served it, and it still tastes like heaven to me.
I'm not talking about coating the latke with a blizzard of confectioners' sugar, as if it were some crumb cake. Latke toppings should complement and play up the intrinsic savory potato flavors, not disguise them, because for most Ashkenazi Jews, that fried potato flavor is the taste of Hanukkah itself.
Of course, no Maccabee ever ate a potato pancake. Latkes made of spuds are relative latecomers to the Jewish kitchen-it wasn't until the nineteenth century that Jews of central and eastern Europe even accepted the potato. Just as that other New World import, the tomato, reshaped much of Italian cuisine, so the potato would transform the Ashkenazi culinary landscape, the now iconic potato latke eventually supplanting other Hanukkah pancakes some time in the latter 1800's.
At Hanukkah time, vegetable oil was often expensive and/or scarce in much of central and eastern Europe. So when schmaltz (poultry fat) was the frying medium, latke toppings were either meat-greibenes (the cracklings of crisp skin and onions that are the by-product of rendering goose, duck, or chicken fat) or gravy from a brisket-or pareve (neither meat nor dairy), like applesauce, sugar, or even jam. [Here I must confess that I find jam on a potato latke about as appealing as ketchup on spaghetti-or, even worse, ketchup on a latke, which I am sorry to say I have seen in one contemporary Jewish cookbook.] Another popular topping was sautéed onions, which could be either pareve or meat, depending on what you used to sauté them. And there was always the option of just dusting the finished latkes with coarse salt and pepper, as you would a batch of good French fries.
When vegetable oil became more commonly available-or if a cook fried her latkes extravagantly in butter-sour cream became a luscious topping alternative. Recently, at Fulemule, a Budapest restaurant that highlights gems from the Hungarian-Jewish repertoire, I was treated to platter-size potato latkes slathered with terrific sour cream, then showered with grated salty white cheese and chopped onions. It's a fabulous combination, very similar to the way a delectably greasy Hungarian fast food (langos, a yeast-raised pancake that can be made of flour or potato) is served: very finely minced garlic is brushed on the just-fried pancake, still hot enough so that the tiny garlic bits are nearly cooked when they hit the surface; then comes a layer each of sour cream, grated cheese, and onion.
So how do you top a latke today? Some latke-lovers still favor the tried-and-true, while others experiment. They might try a panoply of applesauces-cooked with fresh cranberries, perhaps, or two of my favorite recipes, included here: an applesauce swirled with a bit of pomegranate molasses and one flavored with fresh rosemary and browned butter. Or sprinkle the latkes with za'atar, for a whiff of the Middle East. Or try sour cream, Greek-style yogurt, thick Middle Eastern labne, crème fraiche, or unaged goat cheese, combined with chopped fresh dill, mint, and/or chives, then top, if desired, with smoked salmon, whitefish salad, or even caviar.
These are a far cry from Grandma Rebecca's modest sprinkle of sugar, but I know she would have relished them as well.
The jam and ketchup? Ah, not so much...