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Sufganiyot: oil, calories and the Garden of Eden



Sufganiyot are a treat at Chanukah.

When you think of Chanukah, the first food that comes to mind is probably the latke. While the potato pancake certainly has its virtues, its oily cousin, the sufganiya has it own unique pleasures. Today, we troll the web for the jelly-filled, powdered sugar-topped, calorie-laden doughy delight.

Israeli folklorist Dov Noy says that sufganiyot go back. Way back. According to an apocryphal Bukharran fable, the first sufganiya "was given to Adam and Eve after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. This sweet doughnut had three characteristics: it was round like the wheel of fortune, it had to be looked at not for its external qualities but for what was inside, and it could not be enjoyed the same way twice." And its name? Sof (end) + gan (garden) + y-a (of God's).

Hmmm. Sufganiyot in exchange for expulsion from the Garden, working by the sweat of your brow and the pain of childbirth? Sounds like a fair trade to me.

On the other hand, cookbook author Joan Nathan says the Hebrew word sufganiya comes from the Greek sufgan meaning "puffed and fried." Rabbi Josh Waxman has entered the etymological fray. He says sufganiya is related to the Hebrew word for sponge, sfog. Sounds plausible when you think of that ball of dough soaking up all that oil and calories in a deep fryer.

Jewish Action magazine says the earliest reference "is found in the writings of Rabbi Maimon ben Yosef, the father of the Rambam who lived during the twelfth century. Apparently even in his day there were those who scorned the traditional Chanukah treat. "One must not make light of the custom of eating sofganim [fried fritters] on Chanukah. It is a custom of the Kadmonim [the ancient ones],' he wrote."

Or perhaps we have the labour movement to thank for the goodie. According to food writer Gil Marks "in the late 1920s, the Histadrut, the Israeli labor federation, decided to champion the less widespread jelly doughnut as a Chanukah treat rather than levivot (latkes), because latkes were relatively easy and homemade, while sufganiyot were rather difficult for most home cooks, thereby providing work (preparing, transporting, and selling the doughnuts) for its members."

Too difficult for most home cooks? Here are a couple of case studies. In "Baptism by Fryer," Sara Ivry describes her maiden attempt at preparing a batch. Despite the fact that she didn't chill the dough as instructed (her fridge was on the fritz), she used the wrong oil ("I bought safflower, thinking the word sounds an awful lot like sunflower"), and had no oil thermometer, Sara persevered and delivered "two dozen slightly scrawny, knotted pastries, lacking specific centers and radiating absolutely no mouth-watering aroma. They looked nothing like the pristine, fluffy, round delights I picture when I think of sufganiyot."

Mirana Levenstein had good reason to refrain from making sufganiyot. "My hair is like a sponge. If there is an aroma anywhere, you can be sure my porous locks will emit that stench long after I have left the space where the smell was produced." Miranda decided to throw caution to the wind and embrace her "inner Jewess". The upshot: "Do not be scared to make these. I was, and not just because of smelly hair. Yeast is intimidating, as is a large pot of burning hot oil. But these sweet jammy treats were surprisingly doable and truly delicious."

The Jewish-Food Recipes Archives has 21 variations including chocolate, no-yeast and raised potato sufganiyot. Want to kick it up a notch? Then try:

• Orange scented

• Quince and vanilla

• Pumpkin (gluten-free)

• Bread machine

• And lest we forget our Canadian neighbors, how about maple-glazed apple cider?

Mindful that we are dealing with boiling oil, Epicurious recommends a family-friendly version recipe that divides up the tasks. Kids "sift the flour and mix it with the remaining sugar, salt, cinnamon, egg yolks..." while the adults "drop the doughnuts into the hot oil..."

After you've ingested one, you'll wind up with 327 calories and 14.8 g of fat (!) if you follow the directions at mealsforyou.com.

But wait. All is not lost. Baile Rochel assuages her guilt by uses whole-wheat flour and brown sugar to create "almost healthy sufganiyot." There are also alternatives that are oven fried and as well as a "no-fry" contender. I do wonder about this caveat about oil-less sufganiyot: "They come out not quite looking like donuts-more like itty bitty rolls, but they taste quite donut-like!"

If the calories don't get you, something else may. Here is the tale of one lucky survivor. "Be forewarned-Sufganiyot can be dangerous! I have a small scar on my lip from boiling hot custard shooting out of a fresh sufganiya bought from a street vendor in Jerusalem. For years now that little ridge on my inner lip has been a year-round reminder of the sweetness (and heat) of Chanukah."


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