The historical foundations of Chanukah are well documented, in the Apocrypha's First and Second Books of the Maccabees and "The Jewish War" and "Jewish Antiquities," written by the Jewish historian, Josephus, in the first century of the common era. As these sources relate, in the year 167 B.C.E. the king of Syria, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, decreed that only pagan gods could be worshiped in the temples, and the practice of Jewish rituals, including circumcision and Sabbath observance, was outlawed under penalty of death. Although many Jews, looking to assimilate into Hellenic society, acceded to Antiochus' decrees, an elderly priest named Mattathias and his five sons (the middle son would become known as Judah Maccabee or "Judah the Hammer") bitterly opposed them and, after raising a rebel army, headed to the hills.
Thus began a bloody three-year guerrilla war against both the Syrian armies and the local Jewish assimilationists that culminated in the liberation of Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple there.
It's not hard to understand why, at a time of Roman rule, the rabbis may have felt obliged to play down the idea of rebellion against an imperial army and focus attention instead on the holiday's spiritual qualities.
An especially fortunate outcome of the shift in emphasis is that down through the centuries Chanukah has developed into a celebration not merely of resistance to tyranny but also of foods cooked in oil. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a more festive holiday, or one to be more happily observed, than that which prescribes the eating of fried foods.
Of these foods, certainly the most well-known is the potato latke, which in the United States has come to bear the same relationship to Chanukah as roast turkey does to Thanksgiving: The holiday is unthinkable without it. Latkes are of Eastern European origin (the word itself is Yiddish, of Slavic derivation), and their prominence at Chanukah is a result of the overwhelmingly Ashkenazic composition of American Jewry; among Sephardic Jews, potato latkes are about as common as Easter eggs. By no means, though, have the Sephardim had to forsake the pleasure of fried foods on Chanukah -- far from it. The fried doughnuts called sfenj, for instance, are a North African Chanukah delicacy. Lightened with yeast, the doughnuts are glazed with a sugar syrup flavored with cinnamon and orange, as is often the case with Sephardic cakes and pastries. (Sfenj are also to be found in Israel, but even more popular there are the jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot, introduced in the 1930s by immigrants from Germany, where the new year is celebrated with jelly doughnuts.)
Fried doughnuts are really just more elaborate versions of fritters, and yeast-raised fritters doused in syrup are a Chanukah tradition throughout the Sephardic world, from Europe and North Africa to the Middle East. In Italy, the holiday is celebrated with fritters made from pureed squash, or from a more traditional yeast dough filled with raisins and anise seeds and finished with warm honey. Across the Mediterranean in Greece, a yeast dough is used to turn out fried puffs called loukomades; anyone who has ever visited the Café du Monde in New Orleans will recognize them as beignets, though loukomades are topped not with a half-inch of confectioner's sugar (the tell-tale white powder on the shirtfront instantly identifies a recent cafe patron) but with crushed nuts and the omnipresent Sephardic sugar syrup.
In Greece, olive oil is still used for deep-frying, but this practice is no longer very widespread because olive oil's smoke point -- the temperature at which it begins to smoke, imparting an unpleasant flavor -- is lower than that of many other types of oil, while its pronounced flavor tends to overwhelm sweet foods. Far more often, now, deep-frying is done with other types of oil, including sunflower oil (as in Turkey, where there has been a relatively recent transition from olive oil, a Spanish legacy), corn oil, peanut oil, and, in North America, canola oil. Still, whichever oil is used, the principle behind deep-frying remains the same. The heat of the oil causes browning in the natural sugars with which it comes into contact resulting in intense flavor, and if the oil is hot enough, steam will be produced inside the food, which pushes outward from the center and prevents the oil from being absorbed. Though surrounded by liquid, the food remains crisp. It is a culinary miracle worthy of celebratio, at Chanukah time or anytime else.
Sfenj (Yeast Doughnuts)
In Morocco, sfenj are a popular street food, often eaten for breakfast. Among North African Jews, they are traditionally made for Chanukah celebrations.For doughnuts 1 package (about 2-1/2 teaspoons) active dry yeast 1/2 cup warm water 2 tablespoons sugar 2-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour 1/4 teaspoons salt 2 eggs, lightly beaten 2 tablespoons. vegetable or peanut oil Grated zest of 1 orange 1/4 teaspoon orange-flower water 1/4 cup finely chopped almonds (optional) Vegetable or peanut oil for deep-frying For syrup (optional): 2 cups sugar 1 cup water 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice 1/2 teaspoon orange-flower water Dash of vanilla Confectioner's sugar for sprinkling on top of Sfenji (optional)
For syrup (if using), mix all of the syrup ingredients together in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and cook about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally until the mixture thickens. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
In a small bowl, mix the yeast with the warm water and 1 teaspoon of sugar. Let stand until the mixture becomes frothy -- about 10 minutes. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, the remaining sugar and the salt. In a medium bowl, combine the eggs, oil, orange zest, orange-flower water, the chopped almonds (if using) and the yeast mixture. Make a well in the dry ingredients and carefully pour the liquid in. Slowly incorporate the dry ingredients into the liquid until a uniform dough is formed. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until the dough is soft, about five minutes, adding flour as necessary to keep the dough from sticking. Place in a large, lightly oiled bowl and cover with a towel. Let stand in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 1 1/2 hours.
Punch down the dough. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to 13-inch width. With a cookie cutter or the rim of a large glass, cut out rounds about 3 inches in diameter. Use your thumbs to punch out a hole in the center as you pull up each dough round. Place the dough rounds on lightly oiled baking sheets, cover with towels and let rise until puffy, about 45 minutes.
In a large, heavy pot, heat at least 2 inches of oil to 350 degrees. Drop the doughnuts in small batches into the oil (do not crowd the pot, as it would make the oil temperature fall) and fry until golden brown on both sides, about 1 1/2 minutes per side. Remove with a slotted spoon or wide skimmer and let drain on wire racks.
Dip the warm doughnuts in the cooled syrup (let glaze harden slightly, then dip a second time) or sprinkle with confectioner's sugar. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes about 12.
This article appears courtesy of The Forward.