In honor of Hanukkah beginning earlier this week, and an all-around appreciation for starch and fried things, Manhattan-based event planning company Great Performances hosted its annual Latke Fest, touted as the “only festival celebrating latkes in NYC!” This year marks the sixth time well-known restaurants throughout the city came to compete for the title of the ultimate latke. The event also benefits The Sylvia Center, with each year’s proceeds supporting the Center’s mission to inspire healthy eating and cooking amongst young people and their families. (Yes, yes, there’s a slight irony of frying potatoes in gallons of oil to in effect promote good food choices but I’m pretty sure nobody is complaining.) I had never attended before, and I thought there was logically only one person to ask to come with me: Shannon.
“I know this is Latke Fest but…I can’t eat any more latkes. I have been eating, and testing and frying latkes since October!” This is how Shannon greeted me when we met in front of the Metropolitan Pavilion. About 2.5 seconds later, we were both at The Plaza Hotel’s table enjoying latkes with red wine braised oxtail, horseradish sunchoke and crispy kale. And so our tour-de-latke began.
It was a packed house (albeit with ample space to move around), of people and potatoes, and, as one sign warned, also some pork. Chefs and their culinary accomplices together dished over twenty different kinds of potato pancakes. Before we had walked two feet to the next station, we had already made some observations.
First, the idea of a “crispy latke” might be a challenge in this cooking/serving environment. More often than not we ate delicious but let’s call them “softer” pancakes. Second, we were immediately perplexed by the presence of forks. But looking around the room it was evident that there were two kinds of Latke Fest people: those who used forks, and those who, well, just shoved the latkes in their mouths. We were definitely “shovers.”
Which brings me to another thought shared by Shannon: things seemed rather civilized. Nobody was elbowing each other or plowing through the crowd to get to a table like when it’s schmorg time at a bar mitzvah. Shannon was sure we would witness at least one semi-brawl over a station’s last latke.
Or, as it turns out, a donut. Or babka. Or a biyali. There were lots of latkes, but also other foods and beverages. Final observation: the grand tradition of offering tangential Jewish foods at the same time in one place was proudly being kept alive here: “Welcome to Latke Fest, have a biyali!” (Dough brought big puffy strawberry-cheesecake and passion fruit filled “sufganiyot;” there was shiny gooey babka from Bread’s Bakery; and a table of beautiful bialys and bread shaped like menorahs from Hot Bread Kitchen.)
Though, to be fair, as Shannon pointed out, isn’t everyone always in the mood for babka? And, I would add, even a donut? In anticipation of being in such a mood later that evening, we had a very brief but serious discussion about trying to sneak extra donuts into our bags. For our husbands. Definitely for our husbands, and definitely not for us (yeah, for us).
I can’t imagine we were the only ones who tried this. But what I also would have liked to smuggle to the outside world was another of Print’s sweet potato & chestnut latke in duck fat. I actively do not like chestnuts, but various layers of fat probably helped the cause. For Shannon, it was Shelsky’s sweet potato and schmaltz-fried latkes with chopped liver that made all her latke dreams come true.
After at least five more latkes (most of them not bite size), two cocktails, and several instagram photos we were stuffed. Drunk off oil and carbohydrates. Latke Fest, a success? As we made our way out of the Pavilion, Shannon said “I should have worn my maternity jeans…” So I think that means, yes, a successful evening.
Latke Fest Epilogue:
The official winners were coincidentally also some of our favorites: both Print and Shelsky’s took home wins for their latkes, Judges and People’s Choice respectively. (Mae Mae Cafe also tied for Judge’s Choice).
An honorable mention that your kosher bubby might not approve of: Mokbar’s pork latke with kimchi crema. The cool spicy cabbage was super nice against the perfectly crisp potato.
The pleasant surprise of the evening: Benchmark’s French onion soup latke with gruyere, Beef gelée & beef carpaccio. It was one of the last latkes we tried and was also one of the least appealing latkes. Nevertheless we were both wowed by the flavor despite our initial hesitation over the beef gelée & beef carpaccio. It truly tasted like a bite of french onion soup.
Recently a friend informed me, via Slate.com, that the éclair “has surpassed the macaron as the most buzzed about Parisian bonbon of the moment.” (Right, totally. I knew that.) But this isn’t your Parisian grandma’s éclair, missy! It has been fancified with trendy flavors and inventive toppings and, most notably, bold bright colors that would make Crayola proud.
The very same week I went into Nussbaum and Wu’s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to find trays of “Black and White” cookies in different colors. Besides the fact that there was something funny and now “inaccurate” about these pink and white, or green and white cookies labeled “Black and Whites,” they caught my attention, especially after hearing of the “new” éclair.
Now, I am not sure how I feel about the éclair of 2013. Or, to a lesser extent, this updating of what many might call “the official cookie of New York,” (which is expected to appear as its names suggests). How far can one veer from an original, from tradition, before you have created something entirely new? Not to mention, these modern éclairs seem to be yet another big city chef’s way of sparking buzz and the salivary glands of local foodies and Instagrammers with what really is something rather common and usually inexpensive—in this case, a sexed-up Euro Boston cream donut (though, I can think of plenty of others: popsicles, cupcakes, rice krispie treats, actual donuts).
Still it seems worthwhile to ponder how color is used to represent innovation and “newness,” especially in the food world. Of course color is important elsewhere. Namely in the fashion world—depending on the season or designer, the “hot look” is either bright colors, no color, or a particular color; and, most apropos of today, in the tech/gadget industry, as just last week the usually monochromatic innovators at Apple unveiled its forthcoming release of two different iPhones—a cheaper version, the 5C, that comes in five bright plastic colors, and a more expensive version, the 5S, that comes in a selection of metallic colors. (Side thought: who decided that “cheaper” equals a children’s paint set, and that those who are willing to pay more, would necessarily want, well, the more boring kind?)
But back to food. Considering that often the colors of an edible object are one of the first ways in which we not only recognize it, connect to our own memories and experiences, and decide if we, in fact, want to consume it, I am surprised any culinary team (of one, or many) ventures to mess with color at all! Especially since it is far from predictable when an unusual color will work and when it will not work. Green (and purple) absolutely did not fly for Heinz ketchup consumers in 2000 when almost nobody jumped on board the EZ Squirt train! Conversely, lack of color is also off-putting, or at least, not very lucrative as Pepsi found when they introduced the world to Crystal Pepsi.
But why? Are we simply slaves to the intersection of tradition, custom, and current trends (be they global or social or cultural)? Bright purple ketchup? No thanks. Black “forbidden” rice and blue potatoes? Sure, for some. Lime green luxury car? Probably not. Electric yellow shoes? Well, at least Beyoncé gives a hell yeah! Can we even compare how color is used and interpreted across all aspects of life?
There might also be a current competing trend in the realm of color and food: to go natural. If Chipotle wants to sell you on its beliefs that fast food doesn’t have to be based on poor quality ingredients or conventional agriculture and production they want a tomato to look exactly like what you expect a tomato to look like (not to mention the whole burrito)! Countless products and other companies count on the fact that the absence of dyes and bright colors are often the visual marks of products labeled with words like “organic,” “artisan,” or “healthy,” and hence the visual cue to the consumer to buy said products based on these claims.
But still sometimes “recoloring” or unexpected color is a success. And maybe desserts, and especially the elevated dessert trend, can more readily get away with something that otherwise goes against our other (better) decisions, and general common sense. I mean, what on earth does common sense have to do with the nutritionally-unnecessary but wildly enjoyable black and white (or mint green and white) cookie? Nothing!
Even though I live in what most non-New Yorkers would describe as a tiny city apartment (600 sq. ft.), I have a nice size kitchen and have not been shy about filling its drawers and covering its counters with cooking tools and gadgets. Of course, everyone has accumulated items that after months of ignoring they realize maybe weren’t so useful after all (i.e., herb cutter).
But even within the more practical category, I seem to return to the same few tools over and over again. Much like the way I wear the same clothes week after week, despite a closet-full of pants and shirts (some with the tags still on them). I am a working mom with a toddler, so while I am not regularly opening pop-up cafes, or even cooking full meals every single night, I seem to always be in the kitchen and always using these items. Only after creating my list did I realize that all of them are small versions of larger ones.
Still, I insist, these recommendations are not only for fellow New Yorkers (or dollhouse owners), as I am confident I would continue to use the same favorite utensils if I lived in a massive home (anything over 800 sq. ft.).
All items are under $10 and can be purchased online or in most kitchen and home good stores.
1. Serrated pairing knife: If I were on a cooking Survivor-like reality show and was allowed to take only one knife, it would be this one. I am absolutely certain I use this knife in more ways than Victorinox ever intended, and quite certainly do not execute any sort of proper technique with it. However, this is the knife I reach for when I need to cut a tomato, a cucumber, a challah roll, a block of semi-hard cheese, a cupcake (of which I am pretending I will only eat half), or when I need to slice through the top of a plastic bag of salad greens. I own three.
2. Small spatula: I am persistent, and I ask a lot of questions. Some might call me nosy. I am also just a smidge anal-retentive (just a smidge). But, really, I just like to get to the bottom of things…like peanut butter jars, cream cheese containers; and get every last remaining cholesterol-filled drop of mayonnaise. This spatula does the job, and does it well. I also use it a lot when mixing up small batches of sauces, spreads or glazes.
3. Small scoop colander: Whether it is for my son or myself, this is so handy when rinsing off a serving or two (or three) of fruit, and even pasta, and other cooked items. There is also the kind that collapse flat but I like this one by the brand Arcitec in particular because of its more ergonomic design, ya know, it’s “scoopiness”.
4. Mini whisk: This one could easily be dismissed as nonessential but it truly is the best tool for whisking a quantity of eggs suitable for a Sunday morning breakfast. Larger whisks cause the viscous egg to sloppily fling over the bowl’s sides, and a fork simply doesn’t efficiently combine the whites and the yolks. Anyway, at $1 price tag, this whisk is no risk. (Note: whisks do come even smaller. I had one of these whisk keychains once and actually used it successfully. For some reason I am proud of this.)
5. Small offset spatula: Even if you only bake the occasional box-mix brownie (which I will not judge but say simply that brownies from scratch are so fast and easy you really should think about); or, to be honest, you just like spreading cream cheese on your bagel like it’s a mini birthday cake, this off set spatula is super handy. I actually use it in almost every baking recipe I make, including real birthday cakes.