Hanukkah, known as “festival of lights” begins this year at sunset Saturday, December 24, and goes through Sunday, January 1. It’s the first time since 1978 Hanukkah has begun the same night as Christmas Eve. What beautiful, combined, loving energy this can bring to the world. The eight days are marked by the successive lighting of eight lights, most often arranged in a Chanukah menorah. We had a brass one with which we used beeswax candles. My mother was Catholic, but she honored her many Jewish friends by celebrating Hanukkah with lighting the menorah; making particular foods; and sending special cards. I even had a toy dreidel, which is a four-sided top inscribed with nun, gimel, hay, and pay and represent the first letters of the words “Nes gadol hayah sham”, and means “a great miracle happened here”. I consider myself fortunate to have had the experience of recognizing Hanukkah, as it was an excellent introduction to recognizing there are other cultures, other than that in which I was raised. Most of my parents Jewish friends were Orthodox and therefore were strict about not eating particular foods; or eating certain foods with other foods; or even being sure some foods were not served on the same table with other foods. Each instance held special religious significance. Both fried in oil, my two favorite Hanukkah foods have always been doughnuts and potato latkes (pancakes).
Over 2,000 years ago, one night of oil in the Temple lasted eight nights, so to commemorate this miracle, Hanukkah foods such as doughnuts and latkes are fried in oil known by the Yiddish word “schmaltz”, which represents the holy oil in the temple. Schmaltz is slowly rendered chicken or goose fat. This process produces a byproduct of small, crispy pieces of chicken skin called “gribernes”. A delicious treat! Schmaltz is perfect for frying sweet dough creations. For frying savory foods, adding diced onion during rendering will enhance its sweetness.
Today’s Hanukkah doughnuts are yeast-raised pastries with no middle hole; filled with a sweet jelly; and sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar or sometimes granulated cane sugar. In Israel, they are called sufganiyot and at Hanukkah time can be found at all bakeries. One night of oil lasting eight days was indeed miraculous, but I think these doughnuts are pretty miraculous, as well! Indeed, while not based in scripture, according to Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook, after God expelled Adam and Eve, he tried to cheer them up with these doughnuts.
I wondered about the likelihood of jelly doughnuts several hundreds of years ago. With some research, I learned the filling was originally meat in non-sweetened dough. This made me think of traditional French Canadian “tourtiere”, which are meat pies often served at Christmastime. Cultures may seem very different, but mostly we find a correlation from one to another.
Further research disclosed the first jelly “doughnut” was a scoop of jelly sandwiched, before frying, between two crust-less bread slices. This version was brought along to Europe by German migrants. The morphed version we have today gained popularity in the 1500’s when sugar became cheap thanks to the exploitation of Caribbean workers harvesting sugar cane. How did it go from favored dessert to a Hanukkah tradition? Ironically, noting the use of slavery in harvesting sugar cane for jelly production, they became a required Hanukkah food due to the efforts of the national labor group, Histadrut, a trade union created in 1920 to organize Jewish economic activities. The perfect sufganiyot is difficult to make by non-professional homemakers. Considering this, Histadrut successfully made it a symbol of Hanukkah, thereby increasing its demand. This in turn increased work for Jewish bakery workers at a time of year when they typically had less work to keep the bakeries open. Today 18 million sufganiyot are consumed each day over Hanukkah and the Israeli Defense Forces purchase more than 50,000 doughnuts each day during this time of celebration.
The crispiest potato latkes are made from the starchiest potatoes, flour, and egg and don’t require expertise. I’ve found references they were originally made from ricotta cheese. As told in the Bibles of Catholic Europe, I question the validity of this story. However, it does lead me to wonder if this is why my mother sometimes made them from both cheese and potato. Most references say potato latkes were originally made from buckwheat or rye, until potatoes were introduced into Eastern Europe where they became a new staple crop and replaced some grains.
As Hanukkah food traditions, the ingredients of latkes or doughnuts aren’t the point. The point is the oil, or “schmaltz”, commemorating the miracle of one day of oil lasting eight days.