Probably the most fun part of preparing my eight-course Hanukkah dinner has been coming up with new latke toppings every year – three new ones each year, in fact. And one of the benefits of having done this eight years in a row is that I now have a suite of latke toppings to trot out for years to come – along with some general principles for latke topping construction. These may seem obvious to others, but I’m the kind of guy who has to experiment repeatedly before learning the obvious.
First of all: the latke itself. I view the latke as the pedestal and the topping as the bust, so I don’t tend to go in for exotic ingredients in the latkes themselves. Just russet potatoes (shredded in the food processor, not pureed, not pre-boiled), onions, egg, salt and pepper. Heat a layer of oil in the pan, drop dollops of latke batter in, fry, flip, fry. The goal is a crispy latke with structural integrity, something you could pick up with your fingers if you prefer to.
Now: toppings. What works, flavor-wise? Almost anything. Salty, savory, sweet, sour, bitter; meat, dairy, fish, vegetables, fruits – it’s all good. But the best toppings, in my opinion, had something with umami and then another flavor element that made the whole combination “pop.” For example: at this year’s dinner, one of the toppings was smoked sturgeon, chive pesto and katsuo ume. The sturgeon provided the umami, the chive pesto provided a color element and also sharpened the flavor of the ensemble, and the katsuo ume provided a pop of salty-sour. Another very successful topping, from year 6, was chicken liver mousse and dried cherry marmalade. The chicken liver provided the umami – and making it a mousse by folding in beaten egg whites kept it from sitting too heavily on the latkes – while the dried cherry marmalade provided a pop of sweet-tartness.
Or, to pick a non-savory example, in year 2 one of the toppings was a spicy pineapple relish with a sliver of lime peel on top. The pineapple relish was sweet but because of the spice and cinnamon it had a very round mouth feel. Without the lime peel, it would have been very good – but the lime peel made it pop.
Toppings that lack that pop can be extremely tasty. Mushroom stroganoff (year 7), tuna and pear tartare (year 4), and apple-persimmon compote (year 5) were all very good, but they weren’t a complete flavor meal in one bite. That’s one advantage, of course, in having multiple toppings: you can get that flavor meal across several bites. So, for example, in year 5 the other toppings were pea puree and roast lemon salsa (umami from the pea puree, a pop of sour from the lemon salsa), and smoked salmon with goat cheese and melted leeks (a salty umami-focused topping). In the context of the other toppings, a largely sweet compote topping worked extremely well.
Structurally, the best toppings are easy to cut with a fork, and ideally do not interfere with eating the latke as finger food. Two toppings that worked very well from a flavor perspective but that were not great from a structural perspective were a steak tartare topped with a quail egg yolk (year 2) and sautéed baby spinach topped with a poached egg and red pepper coulis (year 6). Neither could really be picked up – they had to be eaten at table with a fork and knife.
There were really only three toppings that flat-out didn’t work. My first year, one of the toppings was chopped matjes herring and shiso leaf. The shiso leaf was overwhelmed and the herring did not benefit from being chopped – it turned to mush. In year 4, aioli, steamed snow peas and roast red pepper was kind of bland flavor-wise, and the snow pea was too fibrous for a latke topping. And in year 7, brandied figs with crumbled gorgonzola and toasted pine nuts had multiple problems: the brandy flavor was overwhelming; the figs were too chewy; and the pine nuts rolled off. If I were interested in trying something akin to that flavor combination again, I’d spread the gorgonzola and top with a fig butter.
Finally: here are my personal top toppings by category:
Best sweet topping: adzuki bean paste, slice of Meyer lemon, and matcha (year 8). Runners up: apple-ginger compote and hot pepper jelly (year 1), spicy pineapple relish with lime peel (year 2).
Best fish topping: smoked sturgeon, chive paste and katsuo ume (year 8). Runners up: schmaltz herring, pickled beet and mustard and dill sauce (year 2), tuna and pear tartare (year 4).
Best dairy topping: Shropshire blue cheese with cranberry-kumquat relish (year 3). Runners up: wild mushroom stroganoff (year 7), crème fraîche and trout roe (year 1).
Best meat topping: chicken liver mousse and dried cherry marmalade (year 6). Runners up: seared duck breast with dried cherry sauce (year 4), steak tartare topped with quail egg (year 2).
Honorable mention for one of the best all-around toppings that didn’t fit any of the above categories: pea puree topped with roast lemon salsa (year 5).