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.”
The deep-fried dough, traditionally filled with jam, took off from there.
Now you can find artisanal sufganiyot wherever there are Jews in the world. In U.S. cities with larger Jewish populations, lots of bakeries tout the lip-smacking goodies, filled and topped with rich add-ons like Belgian chocolate, green pistachio whipped cream, dulce de leche, ganache, hazelnut, halvah, crème mascarpone — pretty much anything goes.
Fry your own
It’s not that difficult to make your own sufganiyot, but it’s time-consuming — perfect for an evening at home with family. Sagan Levitan hired a local Rochester, New York, baker to walk them through the steps of dough making, frying and jam injecting — all via Zoom. Even though the house smelled of oil and the kitchen was covered in powdered sugar, it was worth it, Sagan Levitan says.
Amit Friedman, 50, an Israeli who moved to Mercer Island, Washington, with his wife and three children five years ago, craves the taste of home during Hanukkah. So this year he decided to make his own sufganiyot.
“But I was afraid to make dough, so I discovered a hack on Facebook,” he says. He purchased frozen yeast dinner-roll dough, already shaped in the small orbs needed for doughnuts. He let the dough thaw and rise, then lowered the dough balls into deep oil and fried them until they were golden brown on each side, with the light equator circling the middle. After they rested on a paper towel, he filled them with seedless strawberry jam.
“They taste like the real thing,” he says. “It’s seriously amazing. Now it will be a tradition.”
For the first night of Hanukkah this year, Nov. 28, coming on the heels of Thanksgiving, Sagan Levitan admitted she bought doughnuts from a bakery. But while she’s not nostalgic for another Zoom encounter, she does want those homemade sufganiyot. She says she’s going to go with the dinner-roll hack.
“Making sufganiyot is such a fun way to enjoy the holiday and engage the kids,” she says. “But it’s hard to stop eating them.”
Time to Make the Doughnuts
To make your sufganiyot at home, try this recipe from baker Naomi Elberg, which she posted on Instagram along with a how-to video. Elberg also has a few other tips for success.
- Use a sharp knife to cut the dough into uniform pieces, and weigh them on a digital scale so you know that they are the same size (30 grams for mini doughnuts, 60 grams for regular size).
- ·You can make your dough and shape it into balls ahead of time and then freeze them in bags. On the day you want to fry them, let the dough balls thaw on the counter. It can take four hours for them to fully thaw and come to room temperature before frying.
- While thawing, place each dough ball on its own 4-inch square of parchment. This makes it easier to lift up and place into the oil without losing air; you want your dough to remain fluffy.
- When you are frying, the oil should be heated at between 360 and 375 degrees. If the oil is too cool, the doughnuts will be oily and have air bubbles.
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Stacey Freed is a contributing writer who covers remodeling, construction, lifestyle issues, education and pets. Her work has appeared in Beautiful Kitchens & Baths and This Old House and on Forbes.com.