For many families who celebrate Hanukkah, making the fried potato pancakes called latkes is a delicious annual tradition. For D.C. restaurateurs Todd and Ellen Gray, cooking latkes is also about experimentation.
The couple have long been established in the region’s culinary scene: Todd grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and Ellen in Chevy Chase, D.C., and in 1999 they founded the downtown eatery Equinox. Now they are now working together on their newest venture, Manna, a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant inside the Museum of the Bible, just off the National Mall. Their plan is to offer latkes on a seasonal menu.
Fried food is traditionally eaten for Hanukkah because of the role oil plays in the Hanukkah story. According to tradition, oil that was supposed to last only one day miraculously lasted for eight.
Todd did not grow up Jewish and, as the story goes, Ellen’s parents had expressed a bit of skepticism over a Gentile boy marrying their daughter.
But they grew to love Todd through his cooking. Soon after Todd and Ellen got engaged, they went over to her parents’ house for dinner. Ellen’s father was standing over the skillet, frying latkes in a pool of bubbling oil. The method was simple: potato, matzo meal and egg fried up to crispy perfection. Todd tried to stand back and watch, Ellen said, but after a few minutes, he couldn’t help but jump in.
He made a few practical, if non-traditional, suggestions: Cut down the amount of oil to avoid splattering, and use a metal fish spatula to help drain off excess oil and keep the delicate pancakes intact when flipping. Luckily, Ellen’s father was open to the proposals.
“The best way for somebody to get to a Jewish father’s heart is through food,” Ellen said.
Todd and Ellen have honed and rejiggered their latke-making methods over many years. For example, Todd likes adding a few sweet potatoes to his latke mixture, which add a subtle sweetness alongside the starchiness of the white potatoes. The couple have included a few of the variations in their cookbook, The New Jewish Table.
“The ingredients change from year to year, depending on the story we want to tell through our latkes,” said Ellen.
On a recent weekday, Todd demonstrated his technique for WAMU in the Museum of the Bible’s kitchen, just before the day’s lunchtime rush. His recipe follows, although both he and Ellen encourage experimentation and seasonal substitutes.