Sufganiyot Go Avant-garde in Israel on Hanukkah

The new and varied pastries filling Israel’s bakeries this Hanukkah season aren’t your father’s sufganiyot.

Tomer Appelbaum.

Think fashion, not food.

Designers are slaving away, experimenting with new ideas, trashing some and tweaking others. After endless months of preparations, finally the day of reckoning comes as they roll out the new collection.

Tomer Appelbaum

Only in this case, it’s not swimsuits but sufganiyot.

‘Tis the season to be jolly, but ‘tis also the season – at least in the land of the Jews – to concoct the most exotic, unusual, buzz-generating version imaginable of this classic Hanukkah treat of fried dough with filling. 

In recent years, it’s become a sort of national competition. Israel’s top pastry chefs begin toiling on their sufganiyot collections months in advance, in the heat of the summer, scratching their brains for new ideas, trying new twists on old favorites, and testing out creative combinations of fillings and icings. The results are hard to miss in the weeks before Hanukkah, beckoning passersby from the display windows of bakeries, patisseries and cafes around the country.

Gone are the days when the only choice available was the mass-produced, big, greasy sufaginya that oozed bright red glow-in-the-dark jam (if you were lucky, you might find one with butterscotch filling as well). For the new generation of pastry chefs, who turn their noses up at the notion of mass-produced sufganiyot, it’s either hand made or not made.

And the filling flavors – where to begin? Creme brulee, pistachio custard, tiramisu, dark chocolate with bits of candied orange peel, halva creme, apples and cinnamon, fresh strawberries and the list goes on. Have we mentioned the toppings yet? Powdered sugar is obviously so last year. So how about dark Belgian chocolate, caramel lace or colorful jimmies?

Roladin, one of Israel’s largest bakery chains with more than 40 branches spread around the country, has this year added a number of new flavors to the “chaser” collection it rolled out last year. The “chasers” are sufganiyot that come with a plastic syringe full of liquid that you inject into the dough when you eat it – a shtick that kids in particular seem to love.

The fact that the Israeli palate has grown more discerning in recent years and that people are more aware of the dangers of obesity may explain why the sufganiya required this extreme makeover. Yaniv Brikman, who runs the main Tel Aviv branch of Lechamim, often ranked among Israel’s best bakeries, says that in recent years, the trend has been to make smaller-sized sufganiyot.

“There was a time when you’d find sufganiyot that weighed 150 grams each,” he says. “Now they’re down to 40 to 45 grams.”

Another sign of the times, he notes, is the shortened length of the sufganiyot season.

“In years past, sufganiyot would keep being sold weeks after Hanukkah was over. Not anymore. Now as soon as the holiday is over, most of us stop making sufganiyot.”

In a nod to healthy lifestyle trends, Lechamim launched a new line of unfried sufganiyot this year. The new baked sufganiyot are made out of a brioche dough and come with various fillings, including the classic strawberry jam. (Like their deep-fried counterparts, the baked sufganiyot are also all hand made.)

“But this is not just any strawberry jam,” notes Brikman. “We’ve spent a lot of time trying to find the perfect jam, one with a very high fruit content.”

There’s nothing low calorie about the baked sufganiyot. “There’s lots of butter in them,” says Brikman. “And that’s one of the differences between us and the others – we refuse to touch margarine.”

Although fancy fillings and toppings may be all the rage today, according to Brikman, most Israelis still prefer what they know best.

“Here at Lechamim, the most popular flavors remain strawberry jam, butterscotch and chocolate,” he says.

Bucking the trend of innovation and novelty, Cake Art, a smallish family-run bakery, with one branch in Tel Aviv and a second in Bat Yam, puts most of its focus on the tried-and-true: strawberry jam filled sufganiyot with powdered sugar coating. 

“People get excited when they taste something that brings back memories of another time, something that reminds them of home,” says Shimon Levi, whose family opened Cake Art 40 years ago. “We also have some new flavors here, but it’s the basic old recipe that’s still our most popular. We don’t see any reason to reinvent the wheel.”

That might seem to contradict trends evident at places like Roladin, where co-founder and owner Kobi Hakak maintains that Israeli consumers have become more adventurous these days when choosing sufganiyot.

“Two years ago, our gourmet sufganiyot accounted for half our sales and the classic jam and butterscotch-filled sufganiyot for the other half,” he says. “Today, the gourmet account for 60 percent of our sales.”