A crazy combination of oil, fried dough, powdered sugar, fruity jam, several computers and a Zoom account.
These were all the necessary ingredients for a wonderful Hanukkah celebration last year. When Susan Sagan Levitan, 52, and her husband, Michael Levitan, 55, wanted to share the holiday with family spread across the U.S. and Canada, they opted for a sufganiyah (Hebrew for doughnut) baking lesson.
“It was a great bonding experience at a time when we were all feeling isolated,” says Sagan Levitan, the mother of two teen boys living in Pittsford, New York. And the family, like many others celebrating Hanukkah, will be biting into the powdery, jammy treat again this year.
Sufganiyot (the plural for sufganiyah) have become a popular indulgence during the Hanukkah holiday. These doughnuts are typically available for a limited time a month or so leading up to Hanukkah, and people craving the sweets sometimes spend hours in line outside their favorite bakeries to order dozens.
Wildly popular in Israel (where bakers will sell more than 20 million during the eight-day holiday), sufganiyot rolled into U.S. Hanukkah celebrations only relatively recently. As late-20th-century Jews traveled back and forth to Israel, they brought the sweet confection home to the U.S.
Hanukkah is the eight-day celebration commemorating the recovery of Jerusalem and the rededication of the Second Temple in the second century BCE. As the story goes, there was only enough oil for one day, yet it lasted eight, and so Jews celebrate this miracle, in part by consuming foods cooked in oil, like the Hanukkah doughnut.
But how did the humble sufganiyah take center stage during Hanukkah? It’s because of the Israeli government, according to Shannon Sarna, cookbook author and editor of The Nosher.
According to Sarna, for Hanukkah fry-ups, North African Jews make sfenj, fluffy rings of often-misshapen dough slathered with honey. Sephardi Jews make burmuelos, small deep-fried fritters sometimes dipped in orange-blossom-water syrup. The Eastern European Jews brought to Israel latkes (potato pancakes) as well as their version of fried dough, the Polish paczki (potch-key) in the 19th century. It was with these doughnuts that the Histadrut, Israel’s national trade union, founded in 1920, thought it could fix an unemployment problem.
“Making sufganiyot required a level of skill not needed for burmuelos or sfenj,” Sarna says. “Sufganiyah dough is more like a brioche; it requires yeast and a double rise. Making them is labor intensive, and the Histadrut was able to create bakery jobs.”