"WHEN MY GRANDMOTHER DIED," says Weiswasser, "she didn't leave me jewelry. She left me something better -- the latke recipe she would make for the whole family every Hanukkah." Weiswasser is a retired sixth-grade teacher, an energetic grandmother of four who won't give her age. "I'm collecting Social Security, that's all I'll say," she says, laughing.
On this bright, winter day, she was methodically grating 20 pounds of potatoes in her kitchen in the District's Forest Hills neighborhood. She was expecting 80 people for dinner that night -- friends and family -- and she figured she would fry about 200 of the small potato pancakes by the time the evening was over. Already in the refrigerator was the rest of the meal: curried turkey salad with cranberries and pecans, ratatouille, sweetened carrots with onions, French green beans, fresh fruit, spiced cider and two desserts. All from scratch.
She brought over a framed photo of her grandmother, Sadie Goldwater Schrut, embracing Weiswasser's two children when they were young. The photo shows a short woman wearing a blue dress, a sparkly pin and large eyeglasses. She has a cap of silver-white hair and a serene smile. "She was a queen among women," says Weiswasser. "There were seven grandchildren, and we all secretly believed we were her favorite."
Weiswasser grew up in Detroit and went to the University of Michigan before moving to Washington with her husband when she was 27. She credits her cooking abilities to two women -- her grandmother and Julia Child, whom she watched on TV. "My mother was a terrible cook. She never made latkes." Weiswasser acknowledges that her own daughter rarely cooks, but she's been teaching her two older granddaughters. "My theory is, cooking skips a generation," she says.
The latkes that Grandma Sadie would make every Hanukkah were small, oval pillows that were "crisp on the outside and white on the inside." Weiswasser concedes that she never actually watched her grandmother grate the potatoes or mix the ingredients. "We'd just come over, and there she'd be in her flowered apron, in her tiny kitchen, and latkes would be coming out of the fryer, hot and ready to eat."
But when Weiswasser was 18 and ready to leave for college, she suddenly realized that her grandmother wouldn't be around forever. "So I took a bus to her house and watched her cook."
Five years later, as a newlywed, Weiswasser made her first batch of the potato pancakes. Since then, she has written down the recipe for family members and, remembering how she learned by watching Child, she has even videotaped herself preparing them. She hopes that her granddaughters will continue the tradition.
"Who knows?" she asks, with self-deprecating humor. "Maybe when I'm dead, they'll remember I made a video and want to make their grandmother's latkes."
Grandma Sadie's Potato Latkes
(Adapted from Sandy Weiswasser)
Makes about 36 2-inch latkes (10 to 12 servings)
Here are Grandma Sadie's secrets: Use only russet baking potatoes -- they're drier and yield a better texture. Grate the onion first, then add grated potatoes. The onion will help prevent the potatoes from turning gray. Press out as much of the water from the grated potato mixture as possible; it's the excess moisture that makes the latkes soggy. Also, use a skillet that conducts heat evenly for best frying results. Serve with sour cream and applesauce.
Corn or canola oil, enough to come about halfway up the skillet
1 large onion, cut in half
6 large russet baking potatoes, peeled, cut into chunks and placed in cold water
2 beaten eggs
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
About 2 tablespoons flour, or more as needed
1/4 teaspoon white pepper (optional)
Heat the oil over medium heat in a large, heavy skillet. Have ready a baking sheet lined with paper towels.
In the food processor, pulse to coarsely grate half of the onion. Add half of the potato chunks to the onions and pulse to coarsely grate the mixture. Place mixture in a sieve and press repeatedly until as much water as possible has been removed. Transfer mixture to a large mixing bowl. Repeat with remaining onion and potato. Add to bowl. Add eggs, baking powder, salt, flour and white pepper, if desired, to potato mixture, mixing well; add slightly more flour if mixture does not stay together. When oil is hot enough (test by dropping a few strands of grated potato into oil; the oil should begin to bubble around them immediately), drop heaping tablespoonfuls of latke mixture into the oil. Fry for about 4 minutes, turning them over when bottoms are golden brown. Fry for 3 to 4 minutes on the second side. Transfer to the paper towel-lined sheet as you work. Adjust heat and remove browned bits from the oil as needed. Serve hot.
To freeze cooked latkes: Place on baking sheets covered with aluminum foil and put in freezer. When completely frozen, place them in large freezer containers or resealable plastic food storage bags, with wax paper between layers of latkes. When ready to serve, defrost them on the baking sheets and then bake for 5 minutes in a 500-degree oven until they begin to sizzle. If the oven is only moderately hot, they will be soggy.
Recipes were tested by Bonnie S. Benwick of The Post's Food section or Candy Sagon.