Cooking

The Star of Our Holiday Party? A DIY Latke Bar

All you need is a free spirit and a lot of potatoes.

11 min read
11/16/2023
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Latkes are the uncontested star of any holiday spread. They are the ideal canvas for so many sauces, spreads, and sprinkles — whether paired with the classic applesauce or sour cream, or something a little more creative, like tahini with chopped dill. With a DIY latke bar, guests can mix and match their preferred accouterments, and they can also go back for more as many times as they like. It introduces a fun, interactive feature to a party, and it’s easy on the host, because the guests assemble plates themselves. 

Below I’ve outlined a few strategies to make the most of your latke bar, along with a range of toppings to try — some expected, some not, all decidedly delicious.

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Pick your latke-making lane.

If you’re throwing an adults-only party, you can enlist your friends to help you grate potatoes, squeeze out the water, and shape pancakes. Which means making fresh latkes goes from lofty to realistic. However, if children are running near the splattering skillet, make latkes ahead of time and reheat them in the oven. 

As for grating potatoes by hand or in the food processor, that depends on how much time you have, as well as which method is ingrained. My grandfather insisted on doing it by hand, and whenever I stray, it’s with apologies to him. In the end, while grating by hand will make for more uneven shreds, which could lead to a slightly lighter and lacier final product, I haven’t found that much of a difference between the two methods. Using a food processor is faster, but then you have to clean the food processor, which is always a chore. Dare I say … it cuts both ways? 

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Set up your latke toppings bar for maximum ease.

  1. Lay out a platter of latkes and a stack of plates at one end of the table. Then place your toppings, starting with savory and ending with sweet.

  2. Latkes should be eaten hot, so instead of putting out a heaping pile, keep most of them warm on a wire rack set inside a baking sheet in a 200° oven and bring them out in batches.

  3. Think about arranging your latke spread like a cheese board, including a mix-and-match variety of tastes — salty, savory, sweet, bitter, briny — and textures — crunchy, smooth, creamy, meaty.

  4. There may be a few different white, creamy spreads such as crème fraîche and sour cream, so be sure to label all toppings with card stock; alternately, you could write directly on a butcher paper runner.

Build your dream latke toppings spread.

Here are some toppings that I’ve tried and loved over the years.

Crème fraîche: This milder version of sour cream is a perfect potato pancake topper, especially when followed with caviar and/or smoked salmon. You can finish with chopped chives, pomegranate seeds, or honey, each of which will balance out the creaminess of the crème fraîche.

Caviar: Caviar’s salty, briny pop of flavor is an amazing contrast to a latke, and given its price tag, it’s an occasion-worthy topping for your latke bar. Good thing that a little goes a long way, and a mini bowl and spoon will remind guests of that! Look for more affordable options, such as roe from paddlefish, whitefish, or salmon. 

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Smoked salmon: Smoked salmon has become a familiar latke topping. Liven it up with chopped dill, cucumbers, or tahini sauce. When you’re laying the salmon out on a plate, make sure to slice it into bite-sized pieces.

Suggested Pairing: Crème Fraîche + Smoked Salmon + Caviar + Chives

Sliced cucumbers: It’s nice to have a fresh vegetable to counteract the heaviness of fried potatoes. Look for the small Persian cucumbers or long English cucumbers because they have fewer seeds and thinner skin. They’re also less watery, and the last thing you want is a water-logged latke.

Chopped herbs: Like the cucumbers, fresh herbs like chopped chives, dill, and parsley will brighten whatever combo guests create and provide a welcome contrast to all the salty and creamy toppings. 

Suggested Pairing: Crème Fraîche + Smoked Salmon + Cucumber + Dill

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Pastrami: This smoked and spiced meat will add serious substance to your latke bar. Like the salmon, pastrami should be cut into small pieces.

Mustard: As no pastrami sandwich would be complete without mustard, neither would any pastrami-topped pancake. Go with spicy brown or Dijon, either of which would also pair well with that chicken liver mousse further down the bar.

Dill pickle slices: To complete the sandwich trifecta, you need dill pickles, full stop. 

Suggested Pairing: Pastrami + Mustard + Dill Pickle Chips

Kimchi: Funky, spicy kimchi will punch up the latkes with a deep flavor as the juices seep into the crispy exteriors. Kimchi’s crunch pairs great with any creamy spread, such as crème fraîche or labneh.

Soy-garlic-sesame sauce: To make this sauce — great on a naked pancake, especially with a sprinkle of chives — mix together ¼ cup of extra-virgin olive oil, 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 1 tablespoon of distilled white vinegar, 1 tablespoon of sesame oil, 1 teaspoon of sugar, and 1 minced garlic clove (double or triple as needed). The salty and round, nutty flavor just might make it the sleeper hit of the bar.

Suggested Pairing: Crème Fraîche + Kimchi + Chopped Chives

Chicken liver mousse: Jeremy Salamon, the chef and owner of Eastern-European–inspired Agi’s Counter in Brooklyn, suggests putting chicken liver mousse on the latke bar — a brilliant call for an unapologetically rich pancake. “I love the cold, creamy texture against the crispy and freshly fried hot latke,” Salamon says. “Kinda like two worlds colliding, in the best way.” He recommends making your own, if possible, which would call for blending plenty of caramelized onions, cooked chicken livers, butter, maybe some cream cheese, and a generous splash of heavy cream. If this isn’t the cards, get it delivered from your local butcher. 

Maple syrup: Even more brilliant is topping chicken liver mousse with maple syrup, as Salamon suggests. “Liver benefits drastically from any accented sweetness,” he says. It could be jam or fresh fruit, but he’s a fan of maple syrup, and any grade will get the job done. It all makes for a decadent combo worthy of a party. Like the honey, the maple syrup could also provide sweet relief for sour cream, labneh, or crème fraîche, or could enhance an applesauce-topped latke.

Suggested Pairing: Chicken Liver Mousse + Maple Syrup

Labneh: This tangy strained yogurt is a wonderful base. It’s so thick, it’ll act like glue for other toppings. 

Tahini sauce: Mix ¼ cup of tahini with 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice, 1 grated garlic clove, ½ teaspoon of salt, and enough water to loosen it to a pourable consistency. This nutty, vibrant sauce will keep guests coming back for more. Drizzle it over labneh, straight onto the potato pancake, or even the smoked salmon or pastrami, and finish with herbs.

Pomegranate seeds: The sweet, juicy burst of acidity from pomegranate seeds make them a wonderful counterpart to the savory flavors on the bar. Sprinkle them on top of labneh and tahini sauce, sour cream, or chicken liver mousse.

Honey: This is a sweet counterpart to the creamy, dairy-based toppings or the tahini sauce. You could also use honey to double down on the sweetness of applesauce.

Suggested Pairing: Labneh + Tahini Sauce + Pomegranate Seeds + Honey

Sour cream: Sour cream is a latke staple, so make sure to have plenty on hand.

Suggested Pairing: Sour Cream + Cinnamon Sugar

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Applesauce: The other traditional topping for latkes, applesauce could also benefit from a little finessing. A flourish of honey or maple syrup or a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar would take this classic to the next level.

Cinnamon sugar: Crowning latkes with sugar is a tradition attributed to Polish Jews — something I recently learned from cookbook author Jake Cohen’s latest book, I Could Nosh. (For me, someone who watched her father and Polish grandmother absolutely demolish stacks of latkes loaded up with sugar, this adds up.) Cohen gives this tradition a cinnamon toast–like spin: He mixes 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and a pinch of kosher salt into ¼ cup of sugar, and suggests tossing hot latkes in the mixture, using about ½ teaspoon of this mixture per latke. It’s a latke-churro baby! It also makes a nice topping on the bar, of course. 

Suggested Pairing: Apple Sauce + Cinnamon Sugar

Round out your spread, adjusting as you see fit.

Alongside your latke bar, you could serve other traditional dishes, like noodle kugel, brisket, and sufganiyot, or jelly-filled doughnuts. But depending on how hefty your toppings spread is, you could skip these dishes altogether. A large, leafy salad would make for a refreshing, simple side dish. Then scatter gelt and dreidels, and serve sparkling wine, beer, or cider. Or all of the above! The point is, with a latke bar, more is more. 

PHOTO CREDIT:

  • Photographer: Paul Quitoriano

  • Food Styling: Lena Abraham

  • Art Direction: Sarah Ceniceros Gomez