Who wouldn’t love a holiday like Hanukkah, with its culinary tradition of foods fried in oil? Most American Jews think of latkes — crispy potato pancakes. But in Israel, jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot in Hebrew take center stage. Families fry them up by the dozens, bakeries make room in their pastry cases for the once-a-year delicacy, people bring boxes of the fruit-filled confections to the office, and restaurants offer them as a sweet ending to a meal.
As the story goes, more than 2,000 years ago Jewish Maccabee rebels stood up to the formidable Greek army who tried to force their pagan religion onto the Jews. The Maccabees won the battle defying all odds. But the Temple in Jerusalem, including the menorah, a Jewish ritual candelabra, was badly damaged. In searching the rubble, the Maccabees found only enough olive oil to light the Temple menorah for one day. But the oil lasted eight days, giving the Jews enough time to make more holy oil. This is the miracle of Hanukkah.
For eight nights Jews around the world celebrate Hanukkah, the festival of lights. Friends and families gather to light candles in the hanukkiah — a special menorah that holds nine candles — spin four-sided tops called dreidels, and eat lots and lots of foods fried in oil to symbolize the holiday’s miracle.
Preparing doughnuts at home might seem intimidating, but it really isn’t. And the reward of a warm, fresh, airy doughnut plump with jam or pastry cream is just too enticing. To improve my doughnut-making skills, I consulted with Janina O’Leary, executive pastry chef at Trace Restaurant. O’Leary’s weekday Drunken Doughnuts — served with a trio of vodka whipped cream, tequila chile fudge sauce, and bourbon dulce de leche dipping sauces – and weekend Stuffed Doughnuts — filled with Nutella and vanilla bean pastry cream — are so popular that customers insist they stay on the menu. Even if they aren’t on the menu, O’Leary confides, "You can get the doughnuts any time by request."
Before her current gig at Trace, the Del Rio native earned her chops as a graduate of the French Culinary Institute with a Grand Diploma in Pastry Arts and stints as pastry chef in famous New York restaurants such as Daniel, Per Se, Del Posto and her own bakery and sandwich shop, the Village Tart. O’Leary had more than a few doughnut-making techniques up her sleeve to share, plus her own amazing recipe for Vanilla Bean Pastry Cream.
"We’ve experimented a lot in the kitchen with the doughnut recipe and technique," O’Leary says. "We make the dough a day ahead and let it proof (rise). Allow the dough to rise at least two hours in a nice warm environment. But not too warm; in the 80s is about right. It’s great to make the dough a day in advance and refrigerate overnight."
This allows the glutens to relax for the lightest, most tender results. The next day, roll out the dough when it is nice and cold. "That way you don’t have to add too much flour, so it doesn’t become dry," she says.
After rising for another hour, the cut-out dough should be at room temperature to fry. "The dough should be really soft and light to the touch and requires gentle handling," O’Leary says.
Getting the right oil temperature is crucial. Use a candy or oven thermometer to measure the oil temperature. "Fry at 350 degrees. We notice that if you fry higher, you get too much of a skin on the outside and don’t get the fluffy inside. At 325 degrees, the doughnuts are too greasy and too heavy," O’Leary says.
Even though sufganiyot need to be fried right before serving, these delectable treats can be made part of a Hanukkah party easily. Prepare the dough and fillings the day before. A few hours before the party, roll out and cut the dough, leaving it for the final rise during dinner. Fill disposable pastry bags with seedless jam, Nutella and pastry cream. To fill and minimize mess, stand each pastry bag tip down in a tall glass with the plastic bag stretched over the lip of the glass. When filled, pull plastic off the glass and twist to seal. Set back into the glass between use.
Hot oil and kids aren’t the best combination. Let the kids spin the dreidel and eat a few pieces of Hanukkah gelt (chocolate coins) while the adults converge on the kitchen for the big fry. When the sufganiyot are cool enough to handle, call your helpers back into the kitchen to squirt in the fillings, sprinkle the sugar, and EAT the warm sufganiyot. Plate optional.