If there’s anything that illustrates Israel’s growing culinary sophistication, it’s the recent transformation of the Hanukkah soufgania — or jelly doughnut. Traditionally injected with strawberry jelly and dusted with powdered sugar, the soufgania has experienced an upgrade. Doughnuts are now available with fillings ranging from chocolate truffle to halvah. And their popularity is growing.
“We expect to sell 10% more soufganiot this year than we did last year,” Avi Keanan said. Keanan is one of the owners of the Roladin bakery chain, which specializes in flavors with names like Aruba (with piña colada) and Havana (with coffee liqueur).
The soufgania is to Israelis what the potato latke is to Americans: the quintessential Hanukkah food. Like the latke, it’s fried in oil — a nod to the Maccabee story. Traditionally, a soufgania is about the size of a tennis ball, and, according to some, about as digestible. It can be leavened with yeast or baking powder, but it is always deep fried.
Freshly fried soufganiot begin to appear in bakeries and supermarkets and on street corners almost as soon as sukkahs start to come down. And despite the 400 or so calories each one contains, a recent survey reported that the average Israeli will consume about six during the eight-day holiday.
Sounds like a lot? Not really, when you consider that soufganiot are de rigueur at the school Hanukkah parties, at workplace celebrations and, at least once, to accompany candle lighting at home. During the holiday season, it’s not uncommon to see Israelis walking down the street, soufgania in hand.
By the time Hanukkah is over, Israelis will have consumed some 20 million soufganiot, according to Pillsbury Israel. That’s about 2,000 tons, or, put another way, some 9 billion calories.
Most Israelis — about 70%, according to the survey — still buy the classic jelly-filled soufganiot. But more and more, bakeries are catering to a growing desire for exotic fillings and toppings. The Tal Bagels chain is now offering caramel, bittersweet chocolate, flaked chocolate and white chocolate fillings, as well as glazes and toppings of white chocolate and candy.
The Gaya Bakery in Petah Tikvah is more adventurous. On offer are crème café, nougat, chocolate orange and pear, crème brulee, and even grapefruit and vodka. At the Tusha bakery, crème espresso with cardamom and bittersweet chocolate soufganiot are available.
But arguably most venturesome is Roladin, whose 16 shops around Israel increasingly feature exotic — even outlandish — fillings.
This year, Roladin is offering Jamaican-themed soufganiot, filled with bittersweet chocolate and rum, passion fruit and walnut crunch; Aruba flavor, with crème pâtissière, coconut milk and piña colada, and Havana flavor, with three liquers: chocolate, coconut and coffee.
When asked how he comes up with the flavors, Roladin’s Keanan laughed. “Everybody asks me that,” he said. “The truth is, we work with talented people who have a lot of imagination. We just throw them all together and brainstorm. First we come up with a theme, then we develop the flavors, and then we test them. The whole process takes four months. This year we decided on a Caribbean drink theme, and we spared no expense. Our liqueurs are real, and our passion fruit syrup is imported from France.
“Every year, we replace some of our previous flavors, such as Bazooka bubble gum, which didn’t work last year, and keep the old favorites. Vanilla cream, caramel, white chocolate and especially the coffee flavors, like espresso and rum café, are always popular. Kids like milk chocolate with cream added, to make the filling more liquid. My own children’s favorite is chocolate ganache topping with nothing inside, but we make a chocolate truffle filling, too.”
Almost all bakeries confirm that 35- to 50-gram mini soufganiot are becoming more popular, at the expense of the standard 80- gram variety. Keanan attributes the shift to the fact that customers can then justify trying more than one flavor. “They’re more difficult to do and make a mess in the shops, but customers like them. Last year, 35% of the soufganiot we sold were mini size, and this year we’re expecting that half our sales will be of minis,” Keanan said.
Joan Nathan, host of the PBS series “Jewish Cooking in America” and the author of the books by the same name, is a fan of the new fillings. Nathan also authored “The Foods of Israel Today,” “The Flavor of Jerusalem” and “Jewish Cooking in America.”
“I think [the trend] is fascinating,” she said. “It just goes to show you the regionalization of Jewish food and the way we want to vary it and make it our own. Soufganiot are the Israeli food, as far as I am concerned. Chefs these days are so into fusion food that [new doughnut varieties] totally make sense. What I would like to know is if it tastes good!”
But not all bakeries are jumping on the new-filling bandwagon. Noam Peleg, CEO of mass-market bakery Gidron, said that according to the bakery’s surveys, Israelis widely prefer classic strawberry jelly soufganiot. The firm is expecting to sell 5.5 million soufganiot for the holiday, all of which will be of the traditional variety. Some 3.5 million will be sold at Supersol supermarket branches, and the other 2 million through bakeries and through the Israel Defense Forces.
The IDF constitutes the country’s single largest customer for soufganiot. According to IDF spokesperson Limor Levy, a lieutenant colonel, soldiers will consume about a half-million soufganiot this year, all of which will be the standard jelly-filled variety.
“We took a survey last year and discovered that soldiers preferred jelly soufganiot to those filled with chocolate or caramel. Also, for kashrut reasons, jelly is easier to check than other flavors for milk products. All our soufganiot must be pareve so they can be served with the midday meat meal.” According to Levy, the IDF bends over backward to make sure that each soldier gets at least one soufgania. “In addition to ready-made soufganiot, we also provide units with frozen ones, that can be freshly fried, and if the unit wants to make its own, we provide all the necessary supplies.”
Soufganiot, she added, are “good for morale.”
Given the pasties’ limited nutritional value, Phyllis Glazer, an American-born Tel Aviv-based food writer who is the author of “The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking” (along with Miriyan Glazer) and “Food and Drink in the Days of the Bible,” has mixed feelings about soufganiot in general and about trendy fillings in particular.
“On one hand, it’s very nice [that] holiday foods have evolved,” she said. “Soufganiot in different flavors are interesting phenomena. It’s good that pastry chefs are trying to be creative, but unfortunately the soufganiot are still junk. You can try to make them a little healthier, but that’s not what they’re trying to do. They contain too much fat, too much sugar, too much white flour and there are too many chemicals in the fillings. That disgusting red color is based on a coloring banned in the U.S.
“As a food writer, I get shipments of soufganiot from bakeries, but I’ve decided that I’m not going to write about them. Why should my daughters be exposed to that? I don’t have to leave these fattening things in the house. Who knows what the quality of the oil used is? How much has it been heated? It can be carcinogenic.”
But isn’t that a rather Scrooge-like attitude toward a holiday food?
“No, I’m saying that you can find healthier alternatives. In my book ‘The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking,’ I have a recipe for whole wheat soufganiot and for a similar pastry, bumulos in red wine sauce, which are eaten by the Jews of Turkey. They’re smaller and more interesting. But if you’re going to eat soufganiot, I’d go for mini-sized ones.”
Glazer argues that the origin of the soufgania in Israel is actually based on a Christian tradition. “On New Year’s Eve, German Christians were accustomed to eating deep-fried pastries. In Berlin, jelly doughnuts (called Berliner Pfannkuchen) were served on the holiday. Since New Year’s was usually close to Hanukkah, German Jews eventually adopted the custom and brought it with them to Israel in the 1930s.
“Some people in Jerusalem, though, say that their fried pastries date from centuries before that. Sephardi Jews eat sfenj, a fried yeast dough.”
PBS’s Nathan offered a slightly different explanation: “Soufganiot are based on very old Greek recipes, copied a bit from Western European Pfannkuchen, and use a made-up word part Greek and part Israeli.”
Other claims for the origin of soufganiot include Viennese krapfen, Greek loukoumades, Turkish lokma and Dutch pankoeken, which Hungarians call fank.
“The truth is that Jews all over the world have always eaten fried things on Hanukkah,” Glazer said.
Given that so many other fried foods are linked to the holiday, why the indigestible soufgania has become Israel’s Hanukkah food of choice remains something of a mystery.
A psychologist with whom I spoke (who asked that her name not be used) posits that the popularity of the soufgania has to do with its shape: round, with red jelly in the center. “What could be more like a mother’s breast?” she noted.
Food scientist Sam Saguy is not ready to call for an end to their consumption. “Unless you have a problem with diabetes or are obese, by all means eat them. Food has social as well as nutritional functions and contributes to the love of life and the symbolism of the holiday. Hanukkah without a soufgania wouldn’t be Hanukkah.”
Carol Novis worked as a writer and editor for The Jerusalem Post for 15 years. She now freelances for Ha’aretz and for other publications.