A festival to fry for

The evolution of Chanucah’s deep-fried, sugary and cheesy treats.

By Denise Phillips, December 18, 2008

The dinner table at Chanucah is an expression of the different rituals of each family, their culture and the community they come from. However, one thing is common to most families — a focus on fried foods to reflect the story of the festival.

In Israel they make doughnuts, or sufganiyot, filled with jam similar to the German berliner, the Polish paczke or the Russian ponchik. In Yiddish they are known as ponchkes. The word sufganiyot derives from the Hebrew for sponge, which suitably describes their texture.

Originally they were prepared as two pieces of dough surrounding a jam filling, which was all fried together. Today, the dough is deep fried and then injected with fillings like custard, cream, chocolate and, of course, the traditional strawberry jam.

Sephardim enjoy fritters in syrup — in particular loukoumas, which is a popular, deep-fried Greek pastry comparable to a doughnut. It is made of dough coated with honey and cinnamon. Sesame is often added for extra flavour.

Sfenj (from the Arabic word isfenj which means sponge) is a Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian type of doughnut, cooked in oil. Sfenjs are eaten sprinkled with sugar or soaked in honey.

Ashkenazi Jews eat potato latkes and doughnuts. Italian Jews enjoy fried chicken, fried vegetables, fried fruit and pancakes and fritters. Their favourite Chanucah treat is diamond-shaped pieces of bread dough with anise seeds and raisins inside; after frying they are coated with hot honey.

Many Russian Jews practised what was known as the “Flaming Tea Ceremony”. Participants would place lumps of sugar dipped in brandy on to teaspoons and stand in line; as each alcohol-soaked cube was set on fire and the glow spread, Chanucah songs would be sung. Then, all at the same time, each person would drop his or her flaming cube into a waiting glass of tea, extinguishing the light — not to be tried without appropriate fire-safety precautions.

There is another story linked to Chanucah that impacts on the food that we eat: the story of Judith in the Apocrypha tells of how she gave a conquering Greek general salty cheese to feast on. As a result of his thirst he drank too much wine and she was able to behead him in his drunken state.

Perhaps it is because of this story that recipes such as my own almond and cream-cheese sponge are so popular for Chanucah tea — or maybe it is just that they taste so good.

Almond and cream-cheese sponge

My cheesecake needs nothing stronger than a good cup of tea to enjoy it. In my family, we get together on the first Sunday of Chanucah to exchange gifts and share tea. This cake is a reliable favourite — and there are no crumbs when you slice it!

Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 40 minutes
Can be made in advance.
Serves 6 people

150g unsalted butter or margarine
175g caster sugar
3 eggs
200g self raising flour
250g light cream cheese, natural yoghurt or non-
dairy cream cheese
125g ground almonds
½ teaspoon almond essence

For the syrup
250g caster sugar
150ml water
juice of half a lemon

● Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/350°F/ Gas mark 4.
● Line and grease a rectangular tin approximately 30cm x25 cm (12 x 10 in) with non-stick baking paper.
● Cream the butter or margarine and sugar together until light and fluffy.
● Add the eggs one at a time, adding a tablespoon of the flour with the second and third. Mix in the cream cheese.
● Fold in the remaining flour, ground almonds and almond essence.
● Turn mixture into the prepared tin.
● Bake for 40 minutes or until the centre springs back when lightly pressed.
● To make the syrup, heat the sugar and water until dissolved. Bring to the boil and simmer for 2 minutes.
● Add the lemon juice. Pour over the cake and leave to cool in the tin. If there is more syrup than you need, keep and pour over the cake.
● To serve: Invert the cake and cut into small triangles.
● Alternatively if you would prefer to use this cake as a dessert, serve it with ice cream or custard!

Last updated: 12:42pm, December 18 2008