What Do Jelly Doughnuts Have to Do with Hanukkah?

published Dec 21, 2016
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(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

Latkes get all the attention this time of year — as they should, latkes are awesome — but another Hanukkah treat has been gaining in popularity stateside in recent years. Put your hands together for the jelly doughnut.

What the two have in common symbolically is also the ingredient that makes both so delicious: oil.

“Hanukah is all about the fried food,” says Amy Kritzer, author of the new cookbook Sweet Noshings, and founder of the blog What Jew Wanna Eat and online boutique Modern Tribe.

Jelly doughnuts have long been a popular Hanukkah tradition in Israel, where they’re known as sufganiyot (meaning, sponge). Sufga wha? They’re round balls of deep-fried dough, filled most often with jelly or custard, and dusted with powdered sugar. “When I went to Israel, they were all about the doughnuts,” Kritzer says. “This was a new thing to me — having doughnuts on Hanukkah.”

They’ve caught on as a part of U.S. Hanukkah celebrations in a bigger way during the past five years or so, she says, prompting us to wonder: What took so long?

It All Started in Eastern Europe

Germans are credited with inventing the jelly doughnut (the first cookbook recipe for one dates back to 1485), according the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, by the late historian Gil Marks. The confections then spread to Poland, where they’re called pączki, and came to be part of two religious celebrations: Jews fried them in oil for Hanukkah, and Catholics fried them in lard for Fat Tuesday.

Why the oil? Well, Hanukkah commemorates the victory of the Israelites over the Syrian imperial power more than 2,000 years ago, and the reclamation of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The oil symbolizes a day’s supply of oil that ended up lasting long enough to keep the temple’s menorah lit for eight nights following the war, according to the Talmud.

The “Doughnuts” Became an Economy Booster

It wasn’t until the early 20th century, though, that pączki made their way to Israel, where they caught on like wildfire. Until then, latkes reigned there as the most-popular Hanukkah treat.

Funny enough, jelly doughnuts first came on the scene in Israel as job creators: In the late 1920s, a labor federation came up with the brilliant idea of pushing sufganiyot as a Hanukkah treat to put people to work, making, delivering and selling the doughnuts, according to Marks. After all, latkes are relatively easy to make at home; doughnuts … not so much.

A Modern Touch

Don’t be intimidated by the thought of making them at home, though, says Kritzer, who has a chocolate-lime sufganiyot recipe in her new cookbook, which is all about modern takes on classic Jewish desserts. She also has a PB&J version and a savory version, filled with chopped-liver mousse and drizzled with a Manischewitz glaze. Kritzer isn’t the only one mixing things up: “In Israel, they have all kinds of fillings — pastry creams, chocolate — and fun toppings, like halva, a tahini candy, on top.”

The doughnuts don’t even have to be round these days — you can use a cookie cutter to change up the shape. “I saw some shaped like a dreidel, which was impressive,” she says.

This year, go crazy and have a latke bar with various toppings, and a doughnut bar with different fillings, she suggests.

“Latkes will never go out of style,” Kritzer says, “but you can have both.”