Sufganiyot—we eat them for Chanukah, and they connect us to our culture, but have you ever really thought about the story behind them?
A similar type of doughnut was originally reserved for peasants during carnivals in Austria and Hungary. Later, French aristocrat Marie Antoinette (she of “Let them eat cake!”) had it delivered to her royal court. Later still, Israel adopted it to celebrate Chanukah not because of something inherently traditional, but because it’s fried in oil.
According to Michael Krondl of Saveur, “For much of history, deep-fried dough was considered sacred and celebratory. Perhaps the earliest written mention is in the book of Leviticus, specifying ‘cakes mingled with oil, of fine flour, fried’ as an offering worthy of God.’” In fact, “Doughnuts in some form or other have been around so long that archaeologists keep turning up fossilized bits of what look like doughnuts in the middens of prehistoric Native American settlements,” says David Taylor of Smithsonian Magazine.
Why are doughnuts so popular with us Americans, anyway? In World War I, women known as “Doughnut Girls” would pace the trenches, offering up nourishment. When soldiers returned stateside, the craving stuck. Soon, coffee and a doughnut became the go-to for busy Americans.
While Jews had prepared and enjoyed fried dough at home before, doughnuts really had their Jewish moment in early and mid 1900s. Catherine Lamb writes, “In 1920, Adolph Levitt, a Jewish refugee from Czarist Russia, invented the first doughnut machine.” Across the ocean, the Israeli Histadrut (the labor organization) adopted the doughnuts because they could be made en masse, keeping lots of new immigrants employed.
Fast-forward to today and doughnuts aren’t just simple pieces of fried dough, nor are they just a Jewish thing.
As a doughnut-crazed Levine (maybe from the same tribe of Levi as Adolph Levitt?), over the years I’ve scoured the nation in search of the most unconventional and artisanal doughnuts (Sufganiyot 2.0, if you will): Voodoo Donuts and The Salty Doughnut in Portland, Oregon; Doughnut Plant in New York City; The Salty Doughnut in Miami, Florida; Federal Doughnuts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Randy’s Doughnuts in Inglewood, California.
The doughnuts I tasted had such unique flavors: Mexican hot chocolate, fig and apple butter, matcha green tea, pineapple and basil, strawberry and lavender. I couldn’t help but think that these bold new flavors lend themselves to modernizing sufganiyot.