Food & Drink

How to make a classic French latke, as big as the pan

Latkes, or potato pancakes, served with an apple compote. The chef Daniel Rose of Le Coucou in Manhattan makes pommes Darphin, a large potato pancake, for Hanukkah.
Latkes, or potato pancakes, served with an apple compote. The chef Daniel Rose of Le Coucou in Manhattan makes pommes Darphin, a large potato pancake, for Hanukkah. The New York Times

When I sat down to breakfast at Le Coucou in Manhattan, I ordered the poached eggs covered with sauce choron, a Béarnaise with tomatoes, and nestled on top of pommes Darphin, a large pancake made with potato. As I dipped my fork into a sliver of the crisp cake, I thought, “Hanukkah.”

So, apparently, did the chef Daniel Rose, after a sous-chef made him this French potato classic for the first time at Spring, his tiny restaurant in Paris.

According to the culinary historian Philip Hyman, pommes Darphin,also called potato straws or straw potatoes,first appeared around 1900 in the French resort town of Aix-les-Bains, the creation of a maître d'hôtel named François Darphin.

Pommes Darphin aren’t exactly the same as latkes – for one thing, they are made without onions – but, taking inspiration from his menu at Le Coucou, Rose helped me transform this French classic and shortcut latke into an easy treat for Hanukkah.

Rose uses clarified butter and grapeseed oil when making pommes Darphin, something most Jewish cooks wouldn’t do with their latkes.

“We’re kind of in France here,” he explained, looking around the kitchen of the very French Le Coucou, where I’d come for a potato pancake primer a few weeks after that first pommes Darphin bite.

Born in Chicago, Rose learned French cooking in Lyon, worked in restaurants all over France, and then opened the highly praised Spring when he was 29. He also revamped the Parisian standby Chez La Vieille this year.

“Latkes are my mother’s thing,” said Rose, who is 39. He diverges from her method, omitting the egg she puts in her potato mixture. But there are points of similarity, too.

“She also uses onions, the jewels of latkes, which I think are so important to the dish,” he said.

When he was growing up, his mother would make potato pancakes the first and the last three nights of the holiday.

“The whole house smelled of them,” he said. “They were delicious.”

Rose used the grating blade of a Robot-Coupe, the French food processor, to quickly shred the potatoes and onions before frying.

“You want to retain the smell, so use very sweet onions for sautéing and, after cooking, keep the latkes warm in the oven,” he advised.

As I watched him add clarified butter to the potato mixture, he told me not to bother with clarifying – plain, melted butter works just fine. But instead of making many pancakes, he made one large pancake, pressing handfuls of grated potato and onion into a well-greased six-inch nonstick skillet. (Home cooks can use an eight-inch pan, which is more common.)

“To drain the grease, my mother always uses a paper bag, because you can’t be shy with the oil,” he said.

When he cut the pancake with a sharp knife into wedge-shaped slices, he asked a sous-chef for some crème fraîche and vanilla apple compote, which replaces the traditional sour cream and applesauce.

“Who said latkes have to be lots of trouble?” he said. “Make a large one and cut it up.”

“I love this,” he added. “It smells delicious, just like Hanukkah.”

Rose provided me with one final tip before I headed for my own kitchen.

“Remember, this is a grandmother’s recipe,” he said. “It requires more love than precise measurements.”

French Potato Pancakes

Adapted from Daniel Rose, Le Coucou, New York. Time: 35 minutes.

1 medium Spanish onion

2 large russet potatoes, peeled (about 1 3/4 pounds)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 teaspoon fine salt, plus more to taste

Grapeseed oil, for frying

Apple compote, for serving (see recipe)

1/2 cup crème fraîche, for serving

1. Working quickly to avoid discoloration, cut onion and potatoes in large chunks and then shred them, either by hand or by using the grating blade of a food processor.

2. One handful at a time and working over the sink, squeeze out as much liquid as possible from the potato and onion mixture and transfer to a medium bowl. Mix gently with your fingers. Pour the melted butter over the mixture, sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt and lightly work in with your fingers.

3. Heat an 8-inch nonstick frying pan and pour in enough grapeseed oil to lightly coat the bottom. When oil is almost smoking, spoon half the potato mixture into the pan, spreading it over the bottom of the pan and patting it down gently with a spatula so it is about an inch thick. Use the spatula to push in stray pieces to make a clean edge.

4. Fry for about 4 minutes on one side or until golden brown around the edges, then slide onto a plate. Invert the pan over the plate and flip, transferring pancake back into the pan on its other side. Cook for another 4 minutes or until crispy on the outside.

5. Slide pancake onto a paper-towel-covered plate and blot with additional paper towels to absorb excess oil. Remove top paper towels and flip pancake onto a clean plate using the same method as above. Keep in a warm oven as you repeat the process with the remaining potato mixture.

6. Season finished pancakes with more salt if desired. Using a sharp knife, cut like a pie into 6 pieces and serve each with a little apple compote and a dollop of crème fraîche.

Makes 6 servings (2 pancakes).

Apple Compote

Time: 25 minutes

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

4 to 6 Granny Smith or Honeycrisp apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (6 cups, from about 2 pounds apples)

1/4 cup sugar

1 vanilla pod, split in half lengthwise and seeds scraped

2 tablespoons brandy, such as Calvados

1. In a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat, melt butter. Add apples, sugar and vanilla seeds and cook 5 to 7 minutes, until apples start to soften and liquid starts to cook away.

2. Add brandy, raise the heat and cook 2 more minutes to deglaze the pan, until much of the liquid is evaporated. Cover pan and cook over a very low heat, about 5 minutes, until apples are soft. Remove from heat and serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes about 2 cups.