What are sufganiyot?
They’re deep-fried yeast donuts usually with sweet fillings and toppings. Some call them jelly donuts. However, there’s a lot more to the story than what meets the belly.
An old Israeli folktale claimed that when Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden, G-d tried to cheer them up by giving them jelly donuts. Emelyn Rule reports in Time, “pretty much all scholars agree that the tale has zero basis . . . but the idea that doughnuts bring joy is a standard one across cultures.”
The world loves donuts.
Think Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme. Germans eat Berliners; Greeks gobble loukoumades; Italians savor Zeppole; and Latin Americans munch on Buñelos. There are not-round donuts like Churros; seasonal ones like Cider; and those yummy French or New Orleans-style Beignets.
Sufganiyot fit right in.
As a fried food, sufganiyot symbolizes the oil that miraculously burned for eight days in 164 BCE, when Judah Maccabee and his followers seized the Second Temple from the invading Greeks. There was only enough oil for one day – the miracle of Hanukah was that it burned for eight days until they could get more oil.
Two thousand years later, Hanukah, The Festival of Lights, is still celebrated around the world. Hanukah menorahs are lit for eight days, and fried foods eaten to recall the miracle.
Americans usually choose latkes – fried potato pancakes – to symbolize the oil. These days, sufganiyot is also on the menu.
Sufganiyot goes back a lot further than Dunkin and Krispy Kreme. In the twelfth century, Rabbi Maimon ben Yosef advised “not to make light of the custom of eating sofganim on Chanukah. It is a custom of the Kadmonim (the ancient ones).”
Sufganiyot is serious business.
According to Yehuda Shurpin in Chabad, the oil represents both the miracle of Hanukah and the “oil of Torah that penetrates, permeates, and illuminates one’s being.”
Many food historians believe that sufganiyot evolved from the North African donut called sfenj. They were deep-fried pockets of dough filled with savory – not sweet – foods like mushrooms and meats.
The first fried donut recipes in Europe were savory. In 1485 the recipe for jelly donuts appeared in a German cookbook called Mastery of the Kitchen. It called for frying two pieces of dough in lard (pig fat) and putting them together with jelly to make a sandwich. The Germans called them Berliners. By the end of the 1800s, they were also called Bismarks.
People loved Berliners and Bismarks. The Polish version was called pączki. There was a problem. According to kosher law, Jews could not eat pork. Russian Jews changed the recipe to fry the sweet dough in oil, filled with farmer cheese. They called it ponchiki.
When Jews fled virulent antisemitism in the early 1900s, many headed for Israel. They brought along their recipe for ponchiki and combined it with senji to create an entirely new donut.
Sufganiyot was a lot more complicated to make than latkes. That’s when the Israeli Histradut stepped in. The national labor group’s goal was to improve economic activities of Jewish workers in Israel. They aimed for full employment and integration of immigrants.
At the time, latkes were the favored Hanukah food, easily prepared at home. Sufganiyot was far more complicated. Emelyn Rude reported in Time, “Even the most talented cooks will agree that [sufganiyot] tastes better when left up to the professionals. Which is exactly what Histadrut wanted . . . to encourage the creation of more jobs for Jewish workers.”
Today roughly 80% of Israelis eat one sufganiyah every day for the entire eight-day Hanukah holiday. That’s nearly 20 million donuts in a country of 9 million people. The largest bakery in Israel reportedly fries 25,000 sufganiyot a day during Hanukah alone.
Sufganiyot are also enjoyed around the world. Even Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme carry them in their kosher-certified stores. Rabbi Levi Shemtov, known as the “Rabbi of Capitol Hill,” and organizer of the annual Menorah Lighting on the White House Ellipse, observed that “Latkes used to dominate in the U.S., while doughnuts dominated in Israel. Now, I think both are equally popular in the U.S.”
Jewish communities in the Netherlands, Russia, Poland, and Ukraine bake sufganiyot. They’re also available shipped from Israel or online.
While jelly is the most popular, sufganiyot now comes in all flavors and toppings from vanilla, caramel, and chocolate to gourmet like dulce de leche, egg nog, and gingerbread. Toppings vary from powdered sugar, coconut, meringue, and fruit paste. Decorations can be simple or wildly creative, like the homemade Israeli sufganiyot below (and at the beginning of this blog).
Whether you’re eating jelly or dulce de leche, live in Tel Aviv, New York, or Amsterdam, sufganiyot are a hit.