Sin City and the Sufganiya

Hanukkah Donuts, Not as Healthy as Beer

Perhaps the biggest festive miracle is that our hearts survive the fried doughball experience that is the sufganiya. Our waists and thighs may not be so lucky.

Two traditional Hanukkah sufganiyot, filled with jam. One won't kill you, but two...

Some vices have their upsides. Beer gives you tons of B-group vitamins. A coffee habit can make you live longer. Sufganiyot do nothing good for you except to temporarily delight your senses. No-thing.

Sufganiyot, the donuts that Jews traditionally eat to celebrate Hanukkah, are a microcosm of the characteristics described by the U.S. paper Which Foods May Be Addictive? The Roles of Processing, Fat Content, and Glycemic Load, published last February.

The original sufganiya is fried dough dusted with icing sugar and stuffed with a jam that can only be called red – any flavor association is personal. Modern variations include replacing that generic jam with chocolate, whiskey cream, crushed Oreos or other exotica; the dusting of powdered sugar has been replaced with fancy coatings and toppings.

Can one escape the uselessness-to-harm perpetrated by the sufganiya – say, with diet versions? How about assuaging your conscience about your thighs by forgoing the sugar and stuffing the thing with beets? Diet sufganiyot? I wouldnt bother. If youre going to eat a sufganiya, go for the flavor, says Mariana Urbach, chief dietitian at Clalit Health Services. She helps Haaretz count the sins of sufganiyot.

1. A calorie isnt a calorie isnt a calorie

Your optimal calorie intake depends on a host of general parameters – including gender, weight, age, physical activeness and the weather – and personal parameters, including your own metabolic efficiency. But surely a calorie is a calorie is a calorie, wherever its from?

Yes and no. Yes, like a shoe is a shoe. No, because if you get 100 calories from bananas or 100 calories from sufganiyot, the ones you get from the banana will come with good things like vitamins and minerals, and the ones you get from the sufganiya will come with health caveats.

The maximum recommended daily calorie intake is for active teenage boys, who should eat up to 3,000 calories a day. For great big hairy construction workers (the male kind), experts recommend between 2,400 to about 3,000 calories a day; for couch potatoes, 2,000-2,200 should suffice.

A half-eaten Hanukkah sufganiya, filled with ricotta and chocolate. Just one could contain up to 800 calories - more than a third of the average person's recommended intake.
Doram Gaunt

Sufganiyot can range from about 400-500 calories for the simple classic type to around 800-and-counting in the case of the exotic ones stuffed and coated with things we cant even spell. Its up to you whether you want as much as a third of your daily calorie intake to come from a fist-sized sufganiya rather than food that sates and confers benefits.

If youre a dieting woman aiming to eat 1,200 calories a day, or man aiming at 1,700, you dont have much wiggle room. So to speak.

You could, of course, look for diet sufganiyot. Theyre still no goji berry of the dessert world, but one can try to find baked ones, not fried; one can also forgo that topping of sugar, and eschew the stuffing and coating of glistening chocolate. You could do that, but you wont be saving yourself many calories, especially if theyre fried.

2. Oil, oil everywhere

The classic sufganiya is deep-fried. One downside of the cost-of-living protests that have been intermittently shaking Israel since 2011 is that the people want more for less money.

As suppliers cut corners to make ends meet, says Urbach, they become tempted to reuse their oil too much. Reusing vegetable oil for frying at high temperature creates free radicals and oxidizes the oil. Both are bad things.

If youre going to deep-fry, use an oil with a high smoking point like canola or peanut oil, not olive oil. If youre going to reuse that oil, filter out food particles that will spoil before the oil does. Useful tips: If the oil is foaming or stinks like a cheap restaurant, its gone bad.

3. The paper towel effect

If youre deep-frying dough and the temperature is too low, the sufganiya will soak up even more oil than it might otherwise, which is bad, Urbach points out. (Conversely, fry it in oil thats too hot and it will burn.)

A good temperature to fry sufganiyot, counsels Haaretz food editor Liz Steinberg, is 150-180 degrees Celsius (300-360F). She points out that the optimal temperature will depend on the size and density of your sufganiya. Thinner donuts with more airy dough – such as Moroccan sfeng, which have a hole in the middle – can be fried at higher temperatures, since the heat penetrates to the center of the dough more quickly, Steinberg qualifies.

A plate of three sugarcoated sufganiyot.
Aviad Herman

4. Powdered sugar doesnt dissolve in oil

Bakers in Israel typically dust powdered sugar over the things to make them more attractive. Sugar and salt dissolve well in water, but not in oil. But by the time you get home, that pretty white snow has disappeared, visually if not in practice. Chances are the kids will beg for more. You will dust still more powdered sugar on the sufganiyot. Now the thing has two coatings of sugar that were unnecessary in the first place.

5. You probably wont burn it off

Some dietitians helpfully point out that one can always exercise after eating the thing.

You need to burn 3,500 calories more than you take in to lose 1 pound, spells out the Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit medical practice. It provides a chart to show how many calories you burn during one hour of exercise – broken down by different types of physical activity (from high-impact aerobics to strolling). Spoiler alert: Its depressing.

Based on the Mayo stats and everything else being equal, it would take four to five hours to walk off one elaborate sufganiya with cream inside, a coating outside and a shot of liqueur.

6. Tradition!

Is a sufganiya the size of your fist – stuffed with macadamia brittle and Belgian chocolate truffles and coated with white chocolate, drizzled with dark chocolate and jammed with a disposable injector full of whiskey to augment the filling – festive if eaten a month before the holiday? Hardly. But stores nowadays start selling them weeks in advance of Hanukkah.

Traditionally, Jews would make sufganiyot once a year and serve them warm to mark the holiday, says Urbach, reminiscing about the smell of her grandmothers kitchen on that happy day. That made them special.

Eating sufganiyot every day for a month before the holiday removes their unique pleasure, making them just another routine, fattening, unhealthy fried thing we feel like eating. Its about as traditional as Bazooka bubble gum. Availability breeds contempt, Urbach suggests.

She adds that some manufacturers use the cheapest jam possible, which may stain clothing with red food dye. And the worst thing of all is we feed these to our little children every day for weeks, she mourns. We give them industrial, cold, sticky cakes suffused with oil. Its lose-lose.

And dont even try arguing that a donut stuffed with antioxidant berries must be better than one stuffed with chocolate chips: thats like arguing the merits of organic tobacco.

Is there anything healthy about the sufganiya? No. Are they delicious? Yes. Are baked ones free of oil equally delicious? Not if youre used to fried ones.

Bottom line: Go ahead. Eat a sufganiya. One. Make it an occasion, and enjoy.