As Jews around the world prepare to celebrate Hanukkah, which begins Sunday night at sundown, there is a sharp geographical division in the type of food used to mark the festive occasion. Here in the United States, the traditional treat is latkes, small potato pancakes fried in oil. For most Israelis, the Hanukkah food of choice is doughnuts.
“Doughnuts are a big deal,” said Anne Rothenberg, a Capital Region native who divides her time between Albany and Jerusalem. The most popular confections, called soufganiyot, are jelly doughnuts rolled in sugar. But there are other flavors just as well-loved.
“One of the doughnuts that we don’t get here that they do make in Israel is hot caramel-filled doughnuts,” she said. “Those are very popular. And they have some that are maple-flavored with sprinkles on top. I love maple.”
Significance of oil
The ingredient that both latkes and doughnuts have in common, of course, is oil. But why is oil traditionally used in Hanukkah foods? The history of the holiday, which celebrates religious freedom, goes back more than 2,000 years. The Greeks, who ruled Palestine and Syria following the death in 320 B.C. of Alexander the Great, tried to force their own religious practices upon the Jews of Palestine.
According to Lisa Katz, the author of the “Guide to Judaism” for About.com, after the Jewish fighters, called Maccabees, defeated the Greek-Syrian army, they went to Jerusalem to purify the Temple that the conquerors had desecrated. And, although there was only a single day’s worth of pure oil in the Temple, it kept on burning until more of the precious fluid could be prepared. Therefore, “traditional Hanukkah food is oil-rich in commemoration of the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days,” Katz said.
In commemoration of those miracles, a Hanukkah menorah is lighted during each of the eight nights of the festival until on the last night of Hanukkah when all eight candles are lighted.
Katz, who grew up in Ohio and now lives in Israel with her husband and four children, serves both latkes and soufganiyot to her family during the holiday. Although her husband grew up on a kibbutz and was accustomed to eating doughnuts, he has become a fan of the American tradition.
“Latkes are still my favorite Hanukkah treat,” she said. “And I’ve even managed to convert my husband, who now prefers latkes to sufganiyot. My four children also prefer potato pancakes to doughnuts.”
But Rothenberg said the differences between the American and Israeli celebrations of Hanukkah go deeper than just the type of food that is served. She loves going to Israeli restaurants during the holiday, because many of them will light the menorah at sundown.
“You go into the restaurant,” she said, “it gets very quiet, they say the [blessings], and they light the menorah. In one particular place, they have soufganiyot, and they serve you hot cider, before dinner, and then you’re stuffed and don’t want to eat any more.”
Latkes vs. soufganiyot
Faye Levy, author of “Faye Levy’s International Jewish Cookbook,” believes that the Jews of Russia started the tradition of making potato pancakes to celebrate Hanukkah, while the doughnut recipe originated in Central Europe, in places such as Hungary, Austria, Germany and Alsace in France. The confection became popular in Israel, she said, because many of the pastry chefs there are Austrian and Hungarian Jews.
Levy, who grew up in Washington, D.C., said her family celebrated Hanukkah with latkes, sour cream and applesauce. She was introduced to soufganiyot when she moved to Israel to attend college at the age of 18, and now enjoys both traditional holiday treats.
When it comes to doughnuts, she prefers them to be fairly small and made with a soft yeast dough. “Large ones are too filling,” she said, “especially if you’re having latkes at the same party. A soft yeast dough gives doughnuts a moister texture. Personally, I like them plain or with just a little filling. Too much jelly filling can make them too sweet; but that’s really a matter of taste.”
In her cookbook, Levy offers two doughnut recipes, one for traditional
Hanukkah Doughnuts, and another for Quick Hanukkah Pastry Puffs. But for both types, she offers the following advice: “Use a frying thermometer to make sure the oil is at the right temperature. If the oil is too hot, the doughnuts will burn before they cook through. If it’s too cold, they will be greasy.” Also, she said, for best results, use fresh clean oil, not oil that is left from frying other foods.
Hanukkah Doughnuts (Soufganiyot)
Other common flavorings for these classic doughnuts, besides the brandy used in this recipe, are vanilla, grated lemon rind, cinnamon and nutmeg. Reprinted with permission from “Faye Levy’s International Jewish Cookbook.”
3⁄4 cup lukewarm water
2 envelopes active dry yeast
1⁄4 cup granulated sugar
4 cups all-purpose flour, plus 2 tablespoons more if necessary
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
7 tablespoons unsalted nondairy margarine or butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons brandy
2 teaspoons salt
5 cups vegetable oil, for deep frying
1⁄4 cup apricot or strawberry preserves
Sifted confectioners’ sugar for sprinkling
Pour 1⁄2 cup lukewarm water into a small bowl. Sprinkle yeast on top and add 1 teaspoon sugar. Let stand 10 minutes.
Spoon flour into mixer bowl or another large bowl. Make a well in center and add remaining sugar, eggs, yolks, margarine, brandy, remaining water and salt. Mix with mixer dough hook or wooden spoon until ingredients are blended. Add yeast mixture and mix with dough hook at low speed or with spoon until ingredients come together to form a dough. Beat at medium speed, scraping down dough occasionally, for 5 minutes; or knead by hand for 5 minutes. If dough is very sticky, add 2 tablespoons flour. Knead 5 to 10 minutes more until very smooth.
Put dough in a clean oiled bowl and turn to coat top with oil. Cover with a damp cloth and let rise in a warm place for 1 to 11⁄2 hours or until doubled in volume.
On a floured surface, roll out half the dough until 1⁄4 inch thick, flouring dough occasionally. Using a 21⁄2- to 3-inch cutter, cut dough in rounds. Put 1⁄2 teaspoon apricot or strawberry preserves on center of half the rounds. Brush rim of round lightly with water, then set a plain round on top. With floured fingers, press dough firmly all around to seal it. Transfer this “sandwich” immediately to a floured tray. If it has stretched out to an oval, plump it gently back into a round shape. Continue with remaining dough. Cover pastries with a slightly damp cloth and let rise in a warm place about 30 minutes.
Knead the scraps of dough, put them in an oiled bowl, cover with a damp cloth, and let stand for about 30 minutes.
Heat oil to 350 degrees Fahrenheit; if a deep-fat thermometer is not available, heat oil until it bubbles gently around a small piece of dough added to it. Add 4 doughnuts or enough to fill pan without crowding. Fry doughnuts about 3 minutes on each side or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Pat tops gently with paper towels to absorb excess oil.
Make more doughnuts with scraps if you like; they won’t be as light but will still be good. Serve warm or at room temperature, sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar. Don’t serve immediately because the jam is boiling hot.
Makes 14 large doughnuts, not including the scraps.
Quick Hanukkah Pastry Puffs
These are made by home cooks in Israel as quick substitutes for the yeast-leavened doughnuts. They are ready in minutes and taste good, but are not as light as the yeast version. Reprinted with permission from “Faye Levy’s International Jewish Cookbook.”
11⁄4 cups all-purpose flour
11⁄4 teaspoons baking powder
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1⁄4 cup vegetable oil
1⁄4 cup water or milk
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 cups oil, for frying
Sifted confectioners’ sugar, for sprinkling.
Sift flour with baking powder. Combine eggs, sugar, oil, water or milk, salt and vanilla in a bowl and whisk until smooth. Add flour mixture and mix to a smooth, thick batter.
Heat oil to 350 degrees; if a deep-fat thermometer is not available, heat oil until it bubbles gently around a small piece of dough added to it. Slide mixture gently into oil by rounded tablespoons for large ones, or by teaspoons for small; if mixture doesn’t come easily off spoon, dip another spoon in the oil and use to push it off. Do not drop dough into oil from high above or it might make the hot oil spatter. Fry 2 to 3 minutes on each side or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Pat tops gently with paper towels to absorb excess oil.
Serve hot or warm, sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar.
Makes 8 or 9 large or 16 to 20 small pastries; 4 to 6 servings.