Who knew that when Judah Maccabee’s tiny flask of oil miraculously burned for eight days it would set off a frying frenzy that would last for thousands of years? Here in America, Chanukah wouldn’t be Chanukah without latkes, but in Israel, jelly doughnuts (sufganiyot) are as popular as latkes are here, with almost every bakery making them and every community of Israel’s diverse population enjoying them.
The first recorded recipe for jelly doughnuts may be found in the 1532 Polish translation of a German cookbook, one of the first cookbooks printed by Gutenberg’s press, according to rabbi and food historian Gil Marx, author of the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” (Wiley, $40). “This early version consisted of a bit of jam sandwiched between two rounds of yeast bread dough and deep-fried in lard,” he writes. “Whether the anonymous author actually invented the idea or recounted a new practice, the concept of filling a doughnut with jam spread across the globe.”
Because sugar was rare and expensive, doughnuts at the time were savory with meat, fish or cheese fillings or the like. The growth of Caribbean sugar plantations in the sixteenth century brought lower sugar prices, and sugar and fruit preserves became popular fillings. The invention of a metal pastry syringe and, later, machinery to inject the doughnuts helped to further popularize the treat.
For Polish Jews, schmaltz or oil replaced the lard, and these doughnuts (called ponchiks) became associated with Chanukah. Polish Jews who immigrated to Israel brought them with them along with the practice of enjoying them for the holiday. “In Israel, however, ponchiks soon took the name sufganiyot, from a ‘spongy dough’ mentioned in the Talmud,” says Marx. “The word for sponge is so ancient that there is a question as to whether it was initially of Semitic or Indo-European origin.”
But how did sufganiyot supplant latkes as the official Israeli Chanukah dish? Leave it to the trade unions, which in the late 1920’s promoted sufganiyot over latkes because anybody could make latkes, but the preparation of sufganiyot required more skill, “thereby providing work (preparing, transporting, and selling the doughnuts) for its members,” notes Marx. “Companies began turning out the doughnuts days or even weeks before Chanukah, stretching both the amount of work and the period of enjoyment for eating them, although there are those who insist on waiting to eat one until after lighting the first candle. Sufganiyot subsequently emerged as by far the most popular Israeli Chanukah food.”
“No matter how many commercial doughnuts you have enjoyed in your life, nothing compares to homemade doughnuts,” says Paula Shoyer, author of “The Holiday Kosher Baker” (Sterling, $35). Shoyer showcases traditional desserts with a distinctively modern twist with clear, detailed directions and lavish color photos. Along with updated sponge cakes, blintzes, babkas, challahs and rugelach, you’ll find a chic Raspberry and Rose Macaron Cake, a Salted Caramel Banana Tart Tatin, and recipes for low-sugar, gluten free, vegan, and nut-free treats.
But for Chanukah, it’s all about the oil. “The use of olive oil in cakes dates back further than the Chanukah story itself,” says Shoyer. “Olive oil was used in baked offerings at the Temple.”
For a healthier doughnut, bake them for 20 minutes in a preheated 350°F oven.
1/4 ounce (one envelope) dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar, divided
2 tablespoons light brown sugar, packed
1/3 cup soy milk
2 tablespoons margarine, at room temperature for at least 15 minutes
1 large egg
1/2 cup pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 to 3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
Canola oil for frying
1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar, for dusting
1 In large bowl, stir together yeast, warm water and 1 teaspoon sugar. Reserve 10 minutes, or until thick. Add remaining sugar, brown sugar, soy milk, margarine, egg, pumpkin puree, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and 2 cups flour; mix on low speed with a dough hook on stand mixer or with wooden spoon. Add another cup flour and mix well. Add more flour, a tablespoon at a time, and mix until dough becomes smooth, scraping down sides of bowl each time before adding more flour.
2 Cover dough with clean dish towel; let rise 1 hour in warm place (use a warming drawer on low setting, or turn oven on to lowest setting, wait until it reaches that temperature, place bowl in oven and then turn off oven.)
3 Punch down dough by folding it over a few times and reshaping into a ball. Re-cover dough; let rise 10 minutes.
4 Dust cookie sheet with flour. Sprinkle counter or parchment paper with flour; roll dough out until about 1/2-inch thick. Using 2 1/2-inch round cookie cutter or drinking glass, cut out circles and place on prepared cookie sheet. Reroll any scraps. Cover doughnuts with towel. Place cookie sheet back in oven (warm, but turned off) or warming drawer. Let doughnuts rise 45 minutes.
5 Heat 1 1/2 inches oil in medium saucepan to between 365 and 375 degrees on candy thermometer; adjust heat to maintain temperature.
6 Cover cookie sheet with foil and place wire rack on top. Set it near your stovetop. Gently slide no more than four doughnuts, top side down, into the oil, and fry 1 1/2 minutes. Turn doughnuts over and cook another 1 1/2 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon, letting excess oil drip off, and place on the wire rack to cool. Repeat for remaining doughnuts. Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve. Store covered at room temperature for up to 1 day. Reheat to serve.
Olive Oil Cake
Yield: 8-12 servings
“This is a super-easy teatime cake that reminds me of simple cakes I have eaten in Italy,” says Shoyer. “If you are feeling decadent, serve this with whipped cream.”
3/4 cup sliced almonds (with or without skins)
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup ground almonds
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon orange zest (from one orange)
Spray oil containing flour
(such as Bakers Joy)
1 Preheat oven to 350°F. Trace 8-inch round pan on parchment paper and cut it out with scissors. Grease and flour pan, press in parchment circle; and grease and flour top of parchment and sides of pan. Sprinkle sliced almonds on bottom of pan to cover it.
2 In medium bowl, beat sugar, eggs, and olive oil about 1 minute at medium speed until creamy. Add flour, ground almonds, baking powder, salt, almond extract, and orange zest; beat until combined. Pour mixture over sliced nuts. Bake 35 minutes, or until skewer inserted in middle of cake comes out clean.
3 Let cake cool in pan 10 minutes; run knife around sides. Turn cake onto wire rack and let cool. Serve cake almond side up. Store covered at room temperature up to 4 days or freeze up to 3 months.
Source: “The Holiday Kosher Baker” by Paula Shoyer