It’s funny how time colors our memories, especially our memories of food. Case in point – When I was growing up, my grandma lived with us until I was in college. She used to get free food items from the government. They weren’t like the corporate donations that we have today with a lot of the same brand name foods you find at the supermarket. They were packaged, dried goods in USDA-branded packaging. We used to get boxes of farina, dried milk powder, dried mashed potatoes, and packages of yellow powdered egg. The farina and powdered milk would be prepared according to package instructions – although I remember my grandma and mom steaming the farina into “cakes” in pie pans – but they got a little more creative with the mashed potatoes and egg powder.
One of my favorite lunches Grandma and Mom would make us was sliced, lightly pan-fried potatoes seasoned with a little salt. To add a little more variety to our meals and to use up some of the boxes of mashed potatoes, they developed a recipe for mashed potato pancakes made with the powdered potatoes reconstituted with water that they would mix with chopped scallions, minced Chinese sausage, dried shrimp, and minced, preserved turnip. They would pan fry the pancakes until they were nicely browned, and to my childhood palate, they became a kind of comfort food for me with their soft texture. Alas, when my grandma stopped receiving the government food items, she and my mom stopped making these pancakes altogether.
Fast forward many years later, something triggered my memory of those potato pancakes, and I asked my mom about them – how she hadn’t made them in years. She couldn’t quite remember the recipe, so she made some pancakes using fresh, grated potatoes in place of the reconstituted stuff. They were good, but not as good as the pancakes of my childhood. One thing that made them noticeably different was their color. The pancakes made with the powder were creamy white on the inside, while the ones made with fresh potatoes were unattractively grayish in color (due to oxidation of the grated potatoes). Another thing that made them different was the texture. These new pancakes did not have that nice soft texture I had loved as a child. Over the years when my mom would make these fresh potato pancakes, she would add some dried mashed potatoes as a binder, but they never achieved the softer texture I longed for.
Well fast forward to the present. About a year or so ago, I was flipping through one of my many cookbooks and found a recipe for potato latkes.
Potato latkes are traditionally made with grated onion, eggs, and matzo meal mixed in with the grated potatoes. This particular recipe replaced the matzo meal with flour and looked simple enough. I was curious as to how the combination of the eggs and flour would change the texture of the pancakes. I decided to give it a try, but I decided to dice the onion instead of grating it to minimize painful, teary eyes. Well it turned out delicious, and the texture was softer than the pancakes my mom had been making, (but firmer than the pancakes of my childhood). Not only that, but the addition of the onions kept the potatoes from turning an unappetizing gray color.
I have continued making these latkes, but I have added my own Asian twist with the addition of minced, salted turnip in place of the salt to give my pancakes bits of crunchy texture.
Here’s the recipe with my modifications:
Please note that in the photos below, I doubled the recipe, so please keep that in mind as you follow along.
Chinese-style Potato Pancakes
4 potatoes – I used a mixture of red skin potatoes and Yukon Golds, but you can use any kind.
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup all purpose flour
Freshly ground black pepper
Between 3/4 and 1 cup minced dried radish (available at Chinese/Asian markets) – I buy them already minced, but if not available, you can buy them in whole strips that you can then mince. However, if you want to skip the radish altogether, you can replace it with 1 tsp salt.
Oil for pan frying
Peel and grate the potatoes.
Dice the onion.
Beat the egg.
Combine the grated potatoes with the beaten egg. Mix well.
Mix the flour with the baking powder.
Add the onions to the potato mixture. Sprinkle the flour mixture over the potatoes and onions. Season with pepper to taste.
Mix well to combine.
Rinse the dried radish under cold water and drain. Rough chop the minced radish into even smaller pieces with a sharp knife. (I like to do this because some of the minced pieces can be rather large, and given that they are very salty, it is a good idea to do so to avoid getting a strong hit of salt when you bite into them).
Add the minced radish to the potato mixture, and mix well to combine.
Heat a large skillet (or griddle) over medium-high heat. Add enough oil to coat the bottom of the skillet. When the oil is hot, add large spoonfuls of the potato mixture to the skillet to form individual patties, flattening them out with the back of the spoon. I like to make my pancakes large, fitting four inside a 11 to 11-1/2 inch skillet.
Cover the skillet, lower the heat slightly, and cook the pancakes for about 5 minutes, until well browned.
Turn the browned pancakes over to cook the other side, and cover the skillet. Cook another 5 minutes. (The second side won’t brown as nicely due to the fact that there is less oil in the pan).
Adding more oil to the skillet between batches, continue cooking the potatoes.
Yield: About 10 large potato pancakes.
Note: You can make these the more traditional way by adding more oil to the skillet so that the pancakes are nicely browned and crisp on both sides. I have chosen to use less oil and make mine more like the pancakes I remember from my childhood.
While these pancakes aren’t exactly the same as the ones from my childhood, I am happy with how they turned out. I may play around with the recipe and add some freshly mashed potatoes to the grated potato mixture next time in an attempt to get them even closer to the way I remember them, but I have a funny feeling that I have romanticized the taste memory of them as the years have passed. I guess that’s why people are always saying that their mother’s/grandmother’s recipe always seems to taste better than when they make it themselves. It’s the memories that make the food we grew up eating taste better back then than it can ever taste in the present day.
What are some recipes you remember from your childhood? Have you attempted to remake them? How do they compare to your memories?