The holiday season is in full swing, and the eight-day Jewish celebration of Hanukkah is upon us. Lucky for our taste buds if not for our arteries, food—and specifically fried food—is central to the Festival of Lights. Whether it’s used for pan-frying latkes or deep-frying jelly donuts, oil has a deep and meaningful connection to the Hanukkah table.
Historically, Hanukkah was a relatively minor holiday, commemorating the triumph of Judah Maccabee and his followers over Syrian rule in 165 B.C. According to tradition, the victorious Jews rebuilt the Second Temple, which the Syrians had defiled, and lit its gold candelabrum, or menorah. Even though there was only enough untainted olive oil to keep the menorah’s candles burning for a single day, the flames continued flickering for eight nights. This wondrous event inspired the Jewish sages to proclaim a yearly eight-day festival—while inspiring Jewish cooks to develop oil-heavy Hanukkah delicacies.
But what exactly went into that simmering vat of oil varied by region. In Poland and Russia, the seat of Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, potatoes were the predominant crop, and it was there that Hanukkah potato pancakes—known as latkes—were born. In the Middle East and Northern Africa, however, Sephardic Jews grew wheat. Jelly-filled donuts called sufganiyot became popular, along with other deep-fried pastries.
Today, latkes are the main event in North American Jewish homes. In Israel, on the other hand, people devour sufganiyot in the weeks leading up to and including Hanukkah. Business rather than religious reasons account for the difference. Back in the 1920s, trade unions in British Mandate Palestine realized that few Hanukkah foods would lend themselves to commercial production. Latkes were easy to make with ingredients all families had on hand, so no one needed to buy them. Sufganiyot, however, required some skill on the part of the cook, and deep-frying pastries at home can be a messy process. The unions successfully lobbied for bakeries to sell jelly doughnuts around Hanukkah, and sufganiyot won out over latkes.
The traditional sufganiyot filling is a plain red jelly that wouldn’t be out of place at any corner sweet shop in the United States, but in recent years pastry chefs have taken the humble donut to new heights. Dulce de leche, chocolate ganache and white chocolate halva fillings are all now vying for a spot by the menorah.
1 package dry yeast
4 tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup warm water
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 eggs, separated
2 tablespoons butter, softened
Sugar for coating donuts
Combine the yeast, 2 tablespoons sugar and water. Let sit and allow to bubble. Add flour, rest of sugar, cinnamon and egg yolks to the mixture.
Knead the dough until it forms a ball. Add butter and continue to knead until absorbed. Cover with a towel and let rise overnight in the refrigerator.
Roll out dough to a thickness of 1/8 inch. Cut into 2-inch rounds with a glass. Place 1/2 teaspoon preserves in the center of 12 rounds, then top with the other 12. Press down at edges and seal with egg whites. Let rise for 30 minutes.
Heat 2 inches of oil to 375 degrees. Drop in donuts in batches and brown on both sides. Drain on power towels, then roll in sugar.