Whether by way of culture or faith or family tradition—or simply for the love of breaking bread with friends—holidays have almost always been associated with food. In the cultural melting pot of Cambridge, there are more than a few opportunities to sample holiday fare that might not be a staple of your own pantry.
It doesn’t have to be Hanukkah for you to eat latkes, of course, but with the holiday approaching, you have one more reason to find some of these delicious potato pancakes. One place to do that is Mamaleh’s Delicatessen in Kendall Square, where they turn out these delicious pancakes one 150-pound batch of potatoes at a time.
Chef Tyler Sundet, one of Mamaleh’s owners, didn’t experience latkes himself until he met his wife Rachel (also a chef-partner in the deli) in his 20s. Now he oversees their latke production, which has actually scaled back a little since they first opened in 2016.
“We were working with a farm for all our potatoes and we received half a ton a week to keep up, which is pretty crazy when you’re peeling them all by hand,” Sundet says.
The fundamentals of a good latke are pretty simple, he says: russet potatoes, peeled and soaked overnight to help remove starch, then shredded and mixed with onions, eggs, a little white vinegar, salt, and pepper. Another overnight hold helps separate out the last of the starch, and then they’re formed into 3- to 4-ounce patties, griddled, and fried. The result: crisp potato pancakes that pair well with, frankly, anything.
“The classic is sour cream and applesauce,” Sundet says, “but we’ve cut them into strips and served them with Russian dressing. During Passover, when you’re not supposed to eat anything leavened, we serve sandwiches between latkes instead of bread.”
Latke sandwiches? If that’s not worth a James Beard Award, frankly, we aren’t sure what is.
Furthermore, says Sundet, you can chop them up into croutons, or add any kind of seasonings or flavors, like paprika or cumin for a Spanish inflection.
“They’re a blank slate, honesty. If you think of them like a french fry, the possibilities are endless,” he says.
When the holidays roll around at Formaggio Kitchen, General Manager Julia Hallman says there are several traditions that the staff observes, and that their customers can easily bring home for their own celebrations.
“Obviously, a lot of ours center around cheese,” says Hallman. “Our owner gives us all a piece of cheese to to take home for Thanksgiving: a way to thank us for all the hard work.”
Often, it’s a soft, seasonal cheese from Switzerland called Vacherin Mont d’Or. This comes in a small, 1-pound wheel that’s wrapped in spruce bark. Served at room temperature (or maybe popped in the oven for extra gooeyness), Hallman says to dig in through the top, the bark wrapping holding the whole thing together.
“It’s perfect when you bring a group of people together and go to town on this cheese with a bottle of wine,” she says.
Another big tradition at Formaggio comes courtesy of one of their Italian importers. One common Christmas treat is Panettone—a light, sweet bread with citrus and raisins that comes in tall loaves. What the importer taught them, says Hallman, is you open it on Christmas Eve and everyone tears out pieces from the top to enjoy after the meal. Then, after letting it sit uncovered overnight, you make French toast with it.
Again, is the James Beard Foundation listening to this?
“It’s awesome,” says Hallman with undisguised ardor. “It is so sweet naturally, you don’t really have to do the maple syrup—but I always do, because I love maple syrup and have a sweet tooth.”
This kind of tradition really helps bond the staff at Formaggio, she says, because “we live here for the holidays” since it’s so busy at the shop.
“If people can’t travel home for Thanksgiving, we always have a group together so we can celebrate and kind of relax after such a busy period,” says Hallman. “And, of course, being where we are, it’s always centered around food.”
This story appears in the Nov/Dec print issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.
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