Who would have guessed that a star member of the New York City Ballet was known not only for her portrayal of the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, but also for her potato latkes.
“l don’t care if you criticize my Swan Lake,” proclaimed the late Melissa Hayden in the circa 1966 tome The Ballet Cook Book (Stein & Day) written by her fellow ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq, “but not my potato latkes, because they are the lightest and fluffiest!”
Hayden’s traditional Hanukkah recipe has been preserved thanks to her daughter-in-law, Meryl Rosofsky, an MD and self-proclaimed Francophile who writes and teaches about food with New York University’s Food Studies program, particularly the cultural food systems found in Tuscany, New Orleans and the East End of Long Island.
“When I was a child, I idolized the ballerina, Melissa Hayden, never dreaming that one day I would marry her son, Stuart,” says Rosofsky in the Les Dames d’Escoffier New York Cookbook: Stirring the Pot,(Baldini & Franke) in which this adapted recipe appears. “I also had no idea that this glamorous dancer spent her free time in the kitchen, whipping up gefilte fish, kreplach and other Ashkenazi Jewish delicacies learned from her mother.”
Rosofsky, who happens to be a past board member of the New York chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier (an unprecedented collective of successful and forward-thinking female leaders from all areas of the food, beverage, and hospitality industries) and part-time Shelter Island resident, decided on serving these latkes at a dinner party she was planning with her husband years ago.
“Stuart [Coleman] and I were hosting a friend who was working on a biography of George Balanchine [the celebrated ballet choreographer], and we had heard Balanchine was also a devoted and gifted cook,” recounts Rosofsky. “Wouldn’t it be fun if we made one of Balanchine’s favorite dishes? And that’s how I discovered The Ballet Cook Book that featured Melissa’s latkes and other recipes.”
Rosofsky devoted much of her life to researching and contextualizing The Ballet Cook Book, giving talks and presentations that delve into its social and cultural history. Rosofsky explains, “I thought this incredible book was dismissed and marginalized for too long because women, cooking, and recipes were easy to overlook. People would say, ‘I thought ballerinas don’t eat,’ but they’re athletes and must fuel their bodies for performances.”
Hayden’s recipes in The Ballet Cook Book reflect her Eastern European Jewish background and were created at a time and place when vegetables, other than potatoes and onions, were in short supply. The dedication to keeping these traditional recipes and stories alive paid off when Rosofsky was approached by chef Silvia Baldini, the principal author and editor of Les Dames d’Escoffier New York Cookbook: Stirring the Pot.
“Silvia is just a genius at pulling together interesting, smart, dynamic contributors with a strong relationship to food,” says Rosfsky, “it seemed like a wonderful opportunity and privilege to get to be part of it.”
In a press release from LDNY, contributor and celebrity chef Carla Hall, a dame herself, said that the cookbook, conceived by Silvia Baldini and Sharon Franke to shine a spotlight on the organization, is a “culinary who’s, who,” which highlights recipes from LDNY’s many illustrious members (including Southforker editor-in-chief, Amy Zavatto). All proceeds from the book go toward LDNY’s robust scholarship program, which provides higher education funding for women in the culinary, hospitality, wine and spirits realms.
“Anyone who wonders what the food pros cook at home will love this book,” exclaims Dame Sharon Franke, former president of the Les Dames d’Escoffier New York chapter. “In Stirring the Pot, some of the biggest culinary names share the treasured dishes they serve their families and guests and their secrets for perfect results.”
Melissa Hayden’s secret tip to the irresistible texture of her potato pancakes was to separate the eggs, whipping the egg whites on their own and then folding them into the batter. This result is an exceptionally crisp yet fluffy latke.
“It’s a very innovative technique,” explains Rosofsky, “which I’ve rarely seen in other people’s versions.” Rosofsky also recommends grating the potatoes and onions in alternating layers to prevent the potatoes from browning. “You also want to squeeze as much liquid out of the grated components as possible before frying them in the hot oil.”
Since eating oil-fried, delicious fitters is a Hanukkah tradition dating back centuries (this year, the holiday begins Thursday, December 7), what better time to try your hand at making them? “Stuart was reminiscing about standing over his mother’s shoulder in the kitchen with his sister, Jen, and how they would all just eat them as they came out of the pan, piping hot,” says Rosofsky. “You can smell the crispness.”
Suppose the fitters happen to make it from the pan to a platter for a gathering with other Ashkenazi Jewish delicacies? In that case, Rosofsky recommends making them bite-sized with crisp, lacey edges, served with a dollop of sour cream. To elevate them even more? “A small spoonful of sustainably sourced caviar for the holidays will give the latke an especially festive and luxurious touch.”
Melissa Hayden’s potato latkes
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
- 5 large russet baking potatoes, peeled
- 1 small onion, peeled
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp fresh black pepper
- 1/8 tsp baking powder
- 2 large eggs, separated
- 1 tbsp all-purpose flour
- canola or other neutral oil, for frying
- applesauce and sour cream, for serving
- Coarsely grate the potatoes and onions. Place in a colander and press down to drain off as much liquid as possible. Transfer to a large bowl and mix in the salt, pepper and baking powder. Add the egg yolks and mix well.
- In a medium bowl, beat the egg whites until they hold their shape. Fold the egg whites into the potato mixture. Fold in the flour.
- In a large skillet, add enough oil to measure half an inch. Heat over medium flame until it begins to shimmer. Working in batches, carefully drop large tablespoonfuls of the potato mixture into the hot oil; press down lightly with the back of a spoon to flatten; do not crowd the pan. Cook until golden, about 3 minutes per side.
- Transfer to paper towels to drain. Serve piping hot with applesauce and sour cream on the side.