Most people don’t know they have the Jews to thank for the culinary masterpiece known as the jelly doughnut.
In 1485, not long after a clever chap named Johannes Gutenberg invented the first printing press, a book called “Kuchenmeister,” or “Mastery of the Kitchen,” was published in Germany. In this cookbook was perhaps the first record of a jelly doughnut, called “Gefüllte Krapfen,” that consisted of bread filled with a bit of jam and deep-fried in lard.
Then in 1532, the book was translated into Polish. The Polish Jews took their little jam doughballs, or paczki, with them everywhere they went, and the concept of stuffing a bready object with a sweet filling spread across the globe like wildfire. The only difference across Europe was the name of this delicacy. Germans call them Berliners, Italians eat bomboloni and in the Netherlands they have their oliebol.
Unlike American Jews, who like to eat potato pancakes to get their Hanukkah oil, Israelis like to eat sufganiyot (from the Hebrew word tfog, or sponge), which are small, deep-fried, jelly-stuffed doughnuts covered in powdered sugar. It is estimated that on each of the eight days of Hanukkah, Israel’s most famous bakery makes about 300,000 sufganiyot.
Perhaps it’s the fact that Americans eat doughnuts year round while Israelis confine their doughnut consumption to a particular time of year that makes sufganiyot so nostalgic for me. As a child in Israel, I would look forward to Hanukkah just to eat a sufganiyah, and when we moved to the United States, where latkes are the norm for Hanukkah, I almost forgot about them.
One year, right before Hanukkah, at my café in the U.S. Embassy, one of my Jewish customers asked me if I was cooking anything special for the holiday. I said I was planning to make potato pancakes as usual. At the same time, one of our bakers came out of the kitchen with a challah that we had on order for a customer for Shabbat. The smell of the challah reminded me of the sufganiyot of my childhood, and so the challah doughnut was born in my kitchen.
It actually makes sense: The best doughnuts are made of a rich brioche type of dough, and challah is basically brioche dough made with oil rather than butter. I tested my theory, using some red plum jam as the only reasonable substitute I could find in Uganda for the sour cherry jam of my youth, and ended up with a formidable facsimile of the Hanukkah treats of my youth. A powdered sugar blanket completed the picture.
Here is my recipe that you can use to make the lightest, tastiest jam doughnuts you can possibly imagine for Hanukkah. But if you are in a pinch, feel free to use any challah dough, even store bought, and follow my frying and filling instructions. Just make sure to thank your nearest Polish Jew for spreading the cheer of the sufganiyot!
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs, beaten, and 1 egg yolk
1/4 cup vegetable oil, plus 4 1/4 cups for frying
4 to 4 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup seedless jam or jelly, any flavor
Powdered sugar for garnish
To make the dough, put lukewarm water in the bowl of stand mixer. Add yeast and sugar, and stir to combine. Let the yeast mixture rest for 5 minutes.
Add the beaten eggs and egg yolk, along with 1/4 cup of oil, to the bowl and stir to combine.
While the mixer is running slowly, add the flour, salt and nutmeg, and mix until the dough comes together. Mix for 5 minutes to knead the dough well. Turn off mixer and let the dough sit in the bowl of the mixer for 15 minutes.
The smell of the challah reminded me of the sufganiyot of my childhood, and so the challah doughnut was born in my kitchen.
After the rest period, turn the dough out into a lightly oiled bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate the dough for at least 8 hours — preferably overnight.
When ready to form sufganiyot, remove dough from the fridge and roll it out on a lightly floured surface until it is 1/2-inch thick. Use a 3-inch doughnut cutter to cut out the doughnuts.
Cut straight down without twisting the cutter and place the cut doughnuts on a lightly greased baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough.
Cover the doughnuts with lightly greased cling film or a cloth kitchen towel and let them rise until doubled in size or about one hour. They should look very puffy and airy when they are done rising.
To fry the doughnuts, heat the remaining vegetable oil in a pot or wok until the oil reaches 360 F on a thermometer. You want to use a pot deep enough to deep fry the doughnuts. Carefully add a few doughnuts to the hot oil and fry until golden brown, about 1 minute per side. Use a slotted spoon to remove the doughnuts from the hot oil and place them on a paper towel-lined baking sheet to remove extra oil. In between frying, make sure the oil gets back up to temperature before putting in more doughnuts.
Let the doughnuts cool slightly. To fill with jam, place filling of your choice in a plastic bag or piping bag. Using a chopstick, make a hole in the top or side of doughnut. Remove chopstick and put in the tip of the piping bag. Pipe in 2 or 3 teaspoons of jam into the center of each doughnut and sprinkle with powdered sugar on all sides before serving.
Makes about 20 sufganiot.
Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.