"At least they had that! My mother was grateful to live in the country," Kerstin continued. "They could grow the potatoes and onions. Otherwise they would have starved." I watched Kerstin spoon the potato, onion, flour, salt, and egg mixture out of the bowl and carefully plop it into the hot skillet. The only other person I'd seen make potato pancakes from scratch was my friend from New York. Her parents had immigrated to the U.S. after WWII shortly following the release of her father from a German concentration camp and her mother from a Russian one. They too owed their lives to this gloppy, high-starch, low-protein mixture. It looked like swill, but in Kerstin's hands I knew it would taste delicious.
Kerstin loves potato pancakes and has been making potato pancakes since she was a child in Bavaria, Germany. She and her bride groom were served them at their wedding. And now at her daughter's request, she regularly makes them for dinner. Just goes to show, even though potato pancakes are a cheap food, they are still a family favorite. Click on "continue reading..." for more of the story and the recipe.
I like potato pancakes too, though I had never made them from scratch before. But last night I was serving sauerbraten and thought potato pancakes would go well with this German pot roast. And they did, but it sure would have been easier to have made mashed potatoes. When Kerstin and her family arrived for dinner, I told her what I would be serving. "Oh, I love potato pancakes" she said. "But it's a hard dish to serve at a party."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because they only taste good right out of the skillet; they don't keep warm well. Since you can only make a few at a time, someone always has to stay in the kitchen flipping potatoes while everyone else eats in shifts."
"Oh," I said, "I didn't know they wouldn't keep well." I showed Kerstin the potatoes I'd grated which were now draining in a colander. I showed her the recipe I intended on using to mix up the batter. It was named, "German potato pancakes." Kerstin frowned. The recipe lacked onions. She said good potato pancakes have minced onion in them.
I looked in Grandma's Home Kitchen cookbook and found two recipes for potato pancakes; one was for German potato pancakes; the other was for Swedish potato pancakes. The recipes had been passed down to cook-book-author Wanda Peterson Mango by her grandmothers, one of whom was Swedish, the other German. Both grandmothers had made a lot of potato pancakes during the Great Depression in Wisconsin. Mango writes that potato pancakes were a frequent meal when she was growing up during the post-war years in a very large, poor family in rural Wisconsin.
The only real difference between the two recipes was inclusion of butter in the Swedish pancakes. The Wisconsin-German recipe was virtually identical to Kerstin's Bavarian-family recipe. Since Kerstin offered to make the pancakes, we naturally followed the German recipe. Now, a word of caution: a potato pancake recipe is deceptively simple (that's why I had chosen it in the first place), - max, there are only five ingredients and five lines of instructions. See? Here's Wanda's German-grandmother's recipe for potato pancakes:
- 3 cups peeled, grated potatoes
- 3 eggs
- 1 Tablespoon minced onions
- 2 Tablespoons flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
Blot the potatoes on a clean dish towel or paper towel to remove excess moisture. Preheat griddle on medium heat. Beat eggs, onion, flour, and salt together. Add grated potatoes and stir until well blended. Fry 1/3-cup portions on a preheated, greased griddle for about 2-3 minutes on each side or until golden brown. Serve with butter, applesauce, syrup, or fruit. Good for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Yes, it's a very simple recipe exactly because it's a generations-old, family staple. All of the intricacies have been committed to memory and therefore nobody bothers to write them down. So as Kerstin taught me how to make potato pancakes, she had to tell me all the extra instructions that go along with the cooking. My notes filled a whole page.
First, I found out that I should have grated the potatoes smaller. Kerstin said they are supposed to be grated so finely that after being cooked, one can hold a pancake up and see through it. They should be as delicate as lace. Well, look at the picture, folks, mine looked like flannel. But Kerstin said not to worry, they would still taste good; they'd just take longer to cook. They did. They also looked darker than typical potato pancakes because I used a special red potato that when peeled looks gold, and when cooked looks green. They weren't the most appetizing color, but they tasted good.
The consistency of the potato pancake batter should be thick enough to stick well to the spoon. If it is too thin, thicken it by adding more egg before adding more flour. You don't want it to taste like flour. If it is still too thin, then keep stirring in flour until it is thick enough to hold together in the skillet. The pancake should hold together easily and not separate. Careful with the salt, they don't need nearly the amount you'd expect.
Cast iron skillets are best for frying potato pancakes because they distribute the heat evenly. Use a healthy vegetable oil like Canola oil and use it sparingly. Heat over a medium heat. When the pancake starts to bubble on the sides, flip it. You'll want to flip it at least twice so that both sides sit twice on the skillet's heat. Watch them closely; they're done when they turn a light brown color. If they are too greasy, put them on paper towels to blot up the extra grease.
Add the next spoonfuls to the skillet before you add more oil. Only add more oil if the pancake is sticking to the skillet. Again, add oil sparingly. As you make batch after batch, pieces of pancake will collect in the skillet. Wipe these out with a paper towel before spooning in the next batter.
I had made a small batch of fresh applesauce to serve with dessert, but I served it with the potato pancakes instead. The children ate the first batch of pancakes as an appetizer. They played while Kerstin made more and I got the rest of the dinner ready. Then they ate the second batch served next to the sauerbraten and cauliflower which they didn't eat. As the third batch was finishing, so were the children. We put a DVD in for them to watch, then we adults escaped to the dining room to savor a wonderfully delicious meal in quiet peace. Piano music played in the background as we enjoyed fun, adult conversation and good food. So this eating in shifts worked out; maybe potato pancakes was the right dish to serve after all.
Folks are saying these hard times are bringing us back to basics. We're re-discovering simple joys of home-cooking and re-learning how to make the great old-fashioned flavors of our grandmothers' time. Some folks in Wisconsin never stopped making the traditional recipes, and over the years even perfected them. Now they can even send them fresh in flavor and appearance to you. Here are some traditional Wisconsin staples, made with pride and passion in Wisconsin.
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