A Donut Recipe for Each Chanukah Night
When I looked for Jewish donut options other than ubiquitous jelly doughnuts, I found about eight options, mostly from Mediterranean and Middle Eastern communities. Since that matches the nights of Chanukah, it seemed sensible to try a different recipe each night for these unsweetened yeast doughs, most of them made without eggs, butter, milk, or much sugar. What better way for a fat-averse, pescatarian to celebrate Chanukah’s miracle of oil? I also hoped to taste the varied regional flavors and textures.
This project would also draw me closer to some of the oldest Jewish foods. For example Leviticus 2:7 describes the meal offering for the ancient sanctuary as made of choice flour in oil in a pan. A donut perhaps? Some recipes for fried doughs such as zalabiya and atayef have roots in Central and Western Asia of the ninth century. The Tosaphot (the 12th/13th century commentary to the Talmud from France/Rhineland) explains the sufgan of the earlier Mishnah as flour “fried in oil and called [in French] boynes,” that is, medieval French for buignez, which probably becomes today’s beignet.
Of course, other ancients enjoyed their fried pastries, especially in areas where oil was plentiful. A drawing in the tomb of Ramses III from approximately 1200 BCE illustrates two cooks deep frying dough resulting in something akin to the spirals of zalabiya. Rachel Laudan notes a fondness in ancient Rome for deep-fried dough balls drenched in syrup or honey, called globuli, in her work, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History.
And, this frying frenzy preceded jelly donuts which don’t appear until the fifteenth century Germany.
While I am still frying my way through Chanukah nights and recipes for traditional Sephardic Chanukah treats such as atayef, bimuelos, frittelle, loukoumades, sfeng, zalabiyeh, zengoulla, and more, I pause to share one delectable treat with you.
It is known variously as atayef, ataïf, atayif, qata’if, qatayif, or katayef, from the Arabic word meaning velvet. Sources say that in the ninth century, the chefs for the Caliph of Baghdad wrapped almond paste in a crepe before frying it and topping it with honey.
The Jewish community has known of these double fried pancakes since the tenth century Arabic translation of Torah by Rabbi Saadia Gaon. There, he explains the unusual biblical Hebrew word, tzapihit (Exodus 16:31) as the atayef dessert that his neighboring Muslims enjoyed at Ramadan. Gil Marks, author of the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food notes that atayef were so popular among Jews that a common Jewish name in Egypt was Ibn al-Qata’if, son of the pancake maker. Food writer Claudia Roden describes them as … “one of my favorite Arab sweets” and writes that they are also served at parties and weddings, sometimes piled flat and layered with cream, sprinkled with nuts.
In the Eastern Mediterranean, atayef evolved in leavened form and were covered with sugar syrup flavored with orange or rose water. Found seasonally throughout the Middle East for Ramadan and Christmas, street vendors supply it in Jordan, Syria, Israel, Morocco, Lebanon and Egypt.
While many recipes prefer walnuts for the nut filling, I used slivered almonds based on the earliest recorded description of almond paste filling.
Emily K. Alhadeff, “The Great Doughnut Schlep”
Ty Alhadeff, “Manna from Heaven: Bumuelos, A Sephardic Hanukkah Treat”
Gil Marks, Encyclopedia of Jewish Food