CHEF GARY SHARES A LITTLE PERSONAL HISTORY
Independence Day is a celebration of U.S. history, government and traditions. With 4th of July upon us, it seems fitting to share how Chef Gary Lampner pays tribute to his own family history and service. Chef Gary is devoted to keeping his parents’ legacy alive and he recently honored his parents via art on one of the company vehicles – thirty-five egg-shaped bombs represent each of the successful B-24 Lucky Lass bombing missions Chef Gary’s dad completed during the Second World War. P-O-T-A-T-O-N-I-K is spelled out along the center line of the egg bombs to honor the peasant food recipe for Potatonik that was brought from the old country by Chef Gary’s maternal grandmother, Beckie, and handed down to his mother, Etta.
everyone fought for a corner
Here is how the story goes, as told by Gary’s daughter Lexi Lampner:
Beckie brought a cast iron pan with her when she emigrated from Russia to the United States. It was said that throughout Etta’s childhood, Potatonik was always prepared in the sacred pan. “Everyone fought for the corner” was the phrase that echoed through each generation of storytellers; corners home to warm, smooth potato, corners covered in caramelized onions, corners that expanded life rather than constraining it.
When Papa shares tales of his childhood, he always returns to the tale of this ultimate treat. For me, walking into my grandparents’ house was ritualistic as my sister and I would run into their small condo located in Whisper Walk. Each time our light-up sneakers reflected through the mirror in their entryway, we awaited the aroma of Potatonik. The smell warmed my nostrils and I breathed in the history of the women in my family. Golden and dark brown, the Potatonik cooled on my grandmother’s stove top as we slurped Matzo Ball Soup, which Pop liked very hot, and listened to Pop’s stories of World War II, in which he bombed every Nazi in Germany.
With corners that were crispy to perfection, it was dense yet smooth and crisp; texturally divine. The smell of yeast filled the air and to this day my conditioned response to rising yeast is “Potatonik!”. Potatonik tasted like home. The sweet onion and savory potato complement each other like my memory of Grandma and Pop. And everyone fought for a corner.
Happy Independence Day!
Prep Time: 2 hours
Cook Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Total Time: 3 hours, 30 minutes
10 – 12 servings per pan
Potatonik is a potato-based dish derived from Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine. It has many variations. It is important that the top is a dark golden brown, the corners crunchy, and the onions on the bottom plentiful and sufficiently oily. This is how I do it. You can serve this as a snack, a side dish or even as an hors d’oeuvre. It is especially delicious when eaten cold, schmeared with margarine and sprinkled with salt!
– 4-5 lbs large Idaho potatoes (do not substitute)
– Approximately 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (so mixture is the consistency of loose mud or cooked oatmeal)
– 5 medium onions
– Vegetable oil (about 1 cup … more or less)
– 1/2 tsp sugar
– 1.5 dry yeast packets (Fleischmann’s is preferred)
– 2 tsp Kosher salt
– Pepper (to taste)
You will need (2) Pyrex, metal or cast iron pans about the size of a 13″ x 9″ x 2-3″ deep brownie pan (no aluminum foil pans) and an enormous bowl for mixing. There is some element of knowing how much flour to add until it “feels” right as well as “when it’s done”. It may take 1-2 tries before you get it right.
– Peel the potatoes and remove any imperfections in the flesh. Drop into a bowl of cool water until ready to grate.
– Pat dry and grate the potatoes into your bowl using a coarse grater (or you may use the medium grate side of a box grater).
– Grate about 1/2 of the onions into the same bowl.
– In a small separate bowl, dissolve the yeast with the sugar in about 2 oz of warm (not hot) water. Let the mixture activate until foamy and tripled in size.
– To your bowl of grated potatoes and onions, add flour, yeast mixture, salt, pepper and about 1/2 cup of oil. Cover bowl with a damp kitchen towel and put the mixture into a slightly warm oven and let it rise (approximately 2 hours, until at least double in size).
– While the mixture is rising, lightly caramelize the remaining onions with the remaining oil on the stove top. Spread caramelized onions and oil on the bottom of each pan. Make sure there is sufficient oil so that you can see a shallow layer covering the entire bottom of the pan.
– Pour potato mixture into the pans on top of the onions.
– Bake on the middle oven rack at 375 degrees for 1.5 – 2 hours. The top should be golden brown and you will see oil bubbling in the corners of the pans.
– Remove from oven and let cool (if you can wait!) Save the crispy corners for yourself – they are the best. Enjoy!!
Caramelized onions: When the natural sugars in the onions caramelize, the result is intensely and wonderfully flavorful.
Coat the bottom of a saute pan with vegetable oil. Heat the pan on medium high heat until the oil is shimmering. Add the onion slices and stir to coat the onions with the oil. Spread the onions out evenly over the pan and and sprinkle some salt over the onions. Let cook, stirring occasionally. You may need to reduce the heat to medium to prevent the onions from burning or drying out.
Continue to cook and scrape the browned bits from the bottom of the pan until onions are a rich, brown color.
Remove from heat and allow onions to cool.