Hanukkah Gelt Gets a Makeover as Chocolatiers Raise the Bar

Those remaking the traditionally tasteless coins as fair-trade, quality treats say move sits well with Hanukkah's theme of enlightening the world’s dark places.

The wraps are coming off a finer, more chocolatey gelt for Hanukkah.
The wraps are coming off a finer, more chocolatey gelt for Hanukkah. Mark Hurvitz

JTA - Sharing their favorite Jewish chocolate experiences recently, a group of about 60 chocolate lovers didn't even mention Hanukkah gelt.

That is, until one woman at the New Jersey get-together shared her thoughts on the subject.

“It is sucky,” she said, meaning that the chocolate is waxy, flavorless and should remain wrapped in its foil on the holiday table.

Francine Segan, an author and chocolate maven, echoed the feeling when she told me recently that her children, who were accustomed to high-quality chocolate, suggested that the Hanukkah gelt they sampled be recycled or given to younger children.

Several chocolate makers, however, are bringing finer, tastier and richer dark chocolate to gelt.

Cookbook author Leah Koenig, who has done several gelt tastings, wrote in Saveur that artisan chocolatiers from all over the world have started creating top-notch chocolate coins.

Segan explains that “good chocolate needs to contain 100 percent cocoa product, without cheap substitutes or additives, along with quality sugar and flavorings. Just as we want to be feeding our children real food, we should be giving them real chocolate.”

Koenig also looks for a high ratio of cocoa solids to the other products. For her, that means “more flavor than sweet.”

Heather Johnston started making her “Kosher Gelt for Grown-Ups” just two years ago at her Chicago-based Veruca Chocolates when she and some friends bemoaned the horrible quality of gelt. She felt called to remedy that by using a great tasting chocolate made by the California-based Guittard, which sources and selects its own beans to create an artisanal, luxury chocolate.

For sophisticated palates, she offers two dark chocolate versions: with sea salt or with cocoa nibs.

Johnston also searched for the right design for her mold.

“I wanted the coins to look old, so I explored ancient coinage,” she said in a recent phone conversation.

Johnston selected an ancient Maccabean coin embossed with the Jerusalem Temple menorah similar to that issued by Mattathias Antigonus, a descendant of the Maccabees. Her coins are elegantly airbrushed with gold or silver.

Lake Champlain Chocolates in Burlington, Vt., packages its fine milk chocolate coins in festive Hanukkah boxes. Rich and enticing squares of chocolate-covered toffee and almonds or almonds with sea salt nestle in its “Be Kind, Be Fair, Be Conscious, Be Well” A Gift of Goodness box. They are fair trade, organic and kosher.

Divine Chocolate’s online store offers dark chocolate and milk chocolate coins produced through the farmer cooperative Kuapa Kokoo in Ghana. The phrase “Freedom and Justice” encircles the foil-embossed cocoa tree.

A collaboration among Fair Trade Judaica, T’ruah and Divine offers easy ordering and supports the two nonprofits.

“The gelt we eat on Hanukkah is a reminder of the freedom our people won many years ago," Ilana Schatz wrote at the Fair Trade Judaica website. "Young children are trafficked and forced into working on cocoa farms with no pay and in unsafe conditions in the Ivory Coast.”

Fair trade standards prohibit the use of child and slave labor, a problem particularly prevalent in West Africa.

Several resources offer discussion prompts for Hanukkah experiences. Lesson plans for adults and children (downloadable for free at Jews-onthechocolatetrail.org) assist educators in framing the issues of good Hanukkah gelt through conversations about Jewish values. Hazon and partners have developed brief learning materials, titled "Spinning the Dreidel for Chocolate Gelt," to encourage purchases of fair trade and kosher chocolate gelt.

Selecting fair trade chocolate meshes with Hanukkah’s spiritual messages about freedom and fairness.

A prayer, “Eating [Fair Trade] Hanukkah Gelt,” by Rabbi Menachem Creditor, recognizes the potency of chocolate with Hanukkah’s theme of enlightening the world’s dark places, an important spin on good gelt for Hanukkah, especially for children.

So say a prayer, then enjoy the improved chocolate gelt choices - they may not stay under wraps for long.

Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz is the author of “On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao,” which was published in 2013 by Jewish Lights and is in its second printing. She lectures about chocolate and Jews around the world.