The door of the flat was open. Dan had made whiskey-laced hot apple cider, which he was distributing in red plastic pint glasses. Willa circulated behind him, her blonde hair hidden beneath a red felt Santa hat, offering Chanuka doughnuts. (Francesca Segal, The Innocents)
Normally at this time of year I am seeking literary references to Christmas food. But having written about mince pies in Pride and Prejudice , Christmas cake in Jane Eyre, fudge in Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales and the rice cake that Mrs Morel makes for her son William’s Christmas homecoming in Sons and Lovers, I thought it might be time to look for inspiration elsewhere.
With it being the Jewish festival of Hannukah (alternatively spelt as Chanukah or Hanukah) at the moment – it finishes this coming Wednesday (20th December) – I thought it might be a good opportunity to investigate both the food and literature.
Whilst I’m not Jewish, in my twenties I lived for five years in the flat above Exeter synagogue. The small Jewish community made me very welcome and the chanting of their Sabbath services became a familiar background sound to my Saturday mornings. Whilst my synagogue-dwelling years are now over, I retain an affection for and interest in Judaism and Jewish culture.
Not surprisingly for a foodie like me, one of the things I find fascinating and appealing about Jewish culture is the way food traditions and eating mark the various festivals and holidays of the Jewish year.
Hannukah – the Festival of Lights – is an eight-day celebration that falls in the month of December. It celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 165BC following the victory of a small Jewish army led by Judah Maccabeus against the oppressive Seleucids (Syrian Greeks). When the Jews reclaimed the Temple and went to light the menorah – the seven-branched candelabrum – they found there was only enough oil to burn for one day. However, the oil miraculously lasted for eight days, giving the priests enough time to cleanse the Temple and prepare new supplies of oil.
As well as celebrating Hannukah by lighting the menorah, Jews typically eat fried food at this time of year to commemorate the miraculous oil. Latkes – grated potato fritters – are commonly eaten at Hannukah, as are doughnuts, as referenced above in Francesca Segal’s The Innocents (2012).
The Innocents is loosely based on Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1920), but whereas Wharton’s book is set in 1870s upper-class New York society, Segal sets hers amongst the 21st century Jewish community of North London – where Segal herself grew up. Adam and Rachel, childhood sweethearts, are engaged to be married. When Ellie, Rachel’s glamorous cousin, arrives from New York everything is thrown into disarray.
In the passage quoted above, Adam and his friend Jasper have gone to a party at friends in Hampstead. For the first time in years Adam is not spending Christmas in Eilat (a resort in Israel) with Rachel and her family: he justifies his decision to Jasper by saying that he needs to save his leave for the wedding and that anyway it gives Rachel the chance for a last holiday with her parents. But the reader learns that Adam is finding the break from his fiancee ‘exhilarating‘; and when it transpires that Ellie is at the party, the scene is set for things to become increasingly complicated.
The party is being held by Dan and Willa; on marrying Dan, Willa has converted to Judaism and the narrator notes that ‘they had since decided to combine the best of both families’ traditions into a single hybrid‘, making the party a ‘Christmakah party‘. And this blending of Christmas and Jewish traditions feels rather apt for my own experience as a synagogue-dwelling Vicar’s daughter!
And so to Hannukah doughnuts. Claudia Roden in her 1996 The Book of Jewish Food includes a recipe for Soufganioth (or Ponchkes) which she subtitles Hanukah Jam Doughnuts. In the explanatory text before the actual recipe she explains that these ‘Austro-Hungarian peasant carnival doughnut[s] … became a ‘royal’ delicacy at the French court of Marie Antoinette’ and have subsequently been adopted in Israel to celebrate Hannukah. They are slightly different from the doughnuts we normally eat – but are still very good.
HANNUKAH DOUGHNUTS (from Claudia Roden)
Ingredients (makes 10-12):
1 teaspoon dried active yeast
50ml lukewarm water
2 tablespoons sugar
1 whole egg + 1 egg yolk
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
a pinch of salt
3 drops of vanilla essence
250g plain flour
oil for deep-frying
apricot or raspberry jam
icing sugar to sprinkle on the doughnuts
In a large bowl beat together the sugar, egg and yolk. Add the oil, salt, vanilla essence, yeast and lukewarm water and beat well. Then gradually add the flour, beating to combine. Knead the dough for 5 minutes until it is soft, smooth and elastic. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave the dough to rise until doubled in size: depending on how warm it is this could take up to 2 hours.
When the dough has risen, knock it back and knead for a further couple of minutes. Roll out on a floured surface to a thickness of 5mm. Using a 5/6cm pastry or scone cutter, cut out rounds of the dough. Put a small spoonful of jam in the centre of a round of dough – avoid overfilling otherwise the jam will squeeze out once you begin frying them. Using a pastry brush, brush around the rim with a little water and cover with another round. Press the edges together to seal. Leave the filled and sealed doughnuts to rise for 30 minutes on a floured tray or plate.
Heat 4cm of vegetable oil in a large saucepan. Drop in a few doughnuts at a time to fry for 3-4 minutes with the saucepan lid on. When they are brown, turn over and fry for another minute. Remove from the oil and drain on kitchen paper whilst you continue frying the rest. Serve sprinkled with icing sugar, ideally whilst still warm.