America Discovers the Sufganiyah

Step aside, latkes. Stuffed donuts, long a beloved Hanukkah staple in Israel, are at last conquering the U.S. market, one sweet tooth at a time.

Moti Kimche

NEW YORK – It won’t be long now until the usual treats filling the racks at Brooklyn’s kosher bakeries, the seven-layer cakes and the black-and-white cookies and the soft challah rolls, are moved aside and replaced with delicacies of a different sort: sufganiyot, or stuffed donuts.

Powdered with sugar and filled with jelly or pastry cream, coated in chocolate or colorful sprinkles, the donuts are a popular, albeit new, addition to American Jews’ celebration of Hanukkah.

It wasn’t long ago that they simply didn’t exist as a Hanukkah treat here. “When I was a kid it was just latkes,” said Joan Nathan, the doyenne of American Jewish cooking. Nathan, whose 10 cookbooks include the volume “Jewish Cooking in America,” hadn’t encountered donuts as Hanukkah food until she was in Israel in the early 1970s. But by the time she was a mother of young children, at the end of that decade, she said, Hanukkah donuts were available in the States.

Rabbi Gil Marks, author of the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” called it “a late 20th-century Israeli invasion.”

“Part of it is Americans who spent time in Israel, at university or yeshiva. Anybody who goes there during Hanukkah time sees the prevalence and deliciousness of sufganiyot, especially the fresh ones. And part of it is the number of Israelis who live in America,” he said.

The donuts dotting New York bakery windows are, said Nathan, “a crossing of cultures” that started with the growth of Zionist identity among American Jews in the '70s.

Long before the word sufganiyah was adapted into modern Hebrew from the term sufganim, which referred to cakes made of spongy dough, every culture had its own version of fried dough.

It was German Jews who brought theirs to pre-state Israel, said Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, a culinary historian based in San Francisco. Fried donuts have been popular winter treats in Germany since at least the 19th century, she said. Germans would butcher their animals as winter approached. The gentiles would fry their dough in lard, and German Jews in goose fat. When German Jews immigrated to pre-state Israel, they brought with them a tradition of fried donuts at Hanukkah time, along with year-round baked goods customs like dark rye breads and Shabbat tortes and kuchens. “A piece of German Jewish cooking got sewn into Israeli culture,” said Abusch-Magder.

Latkes, of course, have been the predominant American Hanukkah food, brought over by Eastern European Jews. Eve Jochnowitz is a culinary ethnographer based in New York who is translating into English Fania Lewanda’s Yiddish-language vegetarian cookbook, published in Vilnius in 1938. “She has a lot of latkes” in the cookbook, said Jochnowitz, and includes a recipe for Polish-style ponchkes, or donuts, but not connected to Hanukkah.

Latkes still prevail in American Jewish homes, Marks said. “Most homemakers even with limited culinary skills are capable of making a latke. But if you go to a party or function, it’s sufganiyot." The reason is practical. After coming out of the sizzling oil, Marks said, "latkes go downhill much quicker than donuts do."

In American bakeries, donuts in general were rarely found because frying them requires “different equipment and a totally different skill set,” than what is needed for other baked goods, said Marks. American Jewish donut culture changed when Entenmanns made most of its line kosher in 1981, around the same time that suppliers of food ingredients made many of their products kosher, which meant that kosher products of all sorts became widely available and were no longer relegated to specialized stores, according to Marks. There are at least five kosher-certified Dunkin Donuts outlets within walking distance of his Upper West Side apartment, he said.

Yet as any sufganiya aficionado can tell you, Dunkin Donuts-type jelly donuts pale in taste next to the astounding array produced by Israeli bakeries.

Israel’s Roladin chain, for instance, offers delicately-composed creations ranging from pistachio to tiramisu to crème brulee to halvah-stuffed sufganiyot. There is even a liquor shot sufganiya and one stuffed with Pop Rocks-type candy. It’s Israeli foodie culture played out on the canvas of fried dough, all of it best consumed while the donuts are still warm.

In New York the Donut Plant mini-chain sells about 1.6 million donuts a year, said its COO, KC Salazar. Though the company was started by Mark Isreal, an American Jew, and was at first kosher-certified, it is no longer kosher and does not make any specialty donuts for Hanukkah, Salazar said. Instead, already on their menu are Christmassy panettone donuts, gingerbread-flavored donuts and a marzipan-flavored five-pointed star-shaped donut.

They do see an uptick in large orders for their vanilla bean jam donuts around Hanukkah, Salazar said, “but I wouldn’t say it’s a significant increase."

American sufganiya flavors remain more pedestrian overall though the offerings in at least some New York-area kosher bakeries seem to get a little more decorative each year. While the plain red jelly filling still predominates, that just means there is plenty of opportunity for improvement, Marks said.

“Israeli innovation with individual bakeries trying fun exotic flavorings really hasn’t reached America yet at all,” he said. “When that happens, when we see more experimentation with flavors, it could become more interesting here.”