With roots in the 14th century, sufganiyot have recently undergone a creative transformation

Ever since Cafe Kadosh opened in downtown Jerusalem in 1967, the Parisian-style bakery has made sufganiyot, the traditional doughnuts served during Hanukkah. They’ve long been a quintessential holiday treat, in company with potato latkes and other fried foods. And until recently, they have been fairly predictable. Sufganiyot at Kadosh and other Israeli bakeries had three options for filling came: strawberry jam, chocolate and dulce de leche. But recently, the traditional Hanukkah doughnut has undergone a creative transformation. This year, Kadosh is offering 50 different kinds of sufganiyot, with fillings like mango cream, sweet sesame paste, and brandy-laced chocolate, to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Sufganiyot filled with raspberry cream are topped with homemade marshmallows; those filled with pistachio cream are coated with caramelized nuts. Sufganiyot filled with Valrhona chocolate are displayed tilted on their sides, propped up in paper wrappers, looking more like cupcakes than doughnuts. The jump in variety has been gathering speed over the last several years as Israel’s food scene in general has become more gourmet and experimental. “Each year we have more kinds of sufganiyot,” said Isack Kadosh, who has owns the cafe, founded by his father, who died in 1999, as he sat at one of the cafe’s sidewalk tables on a recent December morning. “We are always trying to find different ways to present them, to be unique. And everybody is copying us.”

Sufganiyot go back to the 14th century Jewish diaspora. In addition to lighting menorahs each night, communities fried different types of dough in order to celebrate the role that oil played in the miracle. Initially the fillings were savory, but in the 16th century, when the price of sugar fell significantly, the traditional doughnut filling became jam. The modern sufganiya emerged in Israel in the 20th century, with the yeasty treat, like much of Israeli cuisine, a fusion of various traditions brought here by Jewish immigrants from around the world who began arriving in large numbers at this time. Even its name, sufganiya, a twist on the Aramaic word sufganin, which appears in the Talmud referring to spongy dough and derived from the Greek word sfog, or sponge, embodies the eclectic history of this doughnut.

Among Israeli bakeries, sufganiyot have gone from a tradition to a sort of competition. Local newspapers rank the best doughnuts. Tour guides offers tasting trips among the bakeries of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Cafes distribute their sufganiyot menus on fancy cardstock, advertise them on television, the sides of buses and on social media.

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Credit: Photo by Sara Toth Stub

“People feel like they have to one-up each other,” said Amy Spiro, an editor and food writer at the English language newspaper the Jerusalem Post, who has written an annual round-up of the best Hanukkah doughnuts for each of the last five years. “It’s becoming a craze, and the flavors have become edgier.”

At Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, the French-born pastry chef Claude BenSimon, laces both the dough and the vanilla creme filling of his sufganiyot with Laurent Perrier champagne.

The national cafe chain Roladin recently unveiled its “collection,” of 12 flavors of sufganiyot, releasing a digital catalogue of fashion models posing with the doughnuts. The advertising campaign and the flavors are a culmination of months of work.

“Our goal is to excite our customers” Roladin’s manager Noa Bachar-Aharoni said. “So we invest a lot of effort in the development and innovation (of sufganiyot).” Among the chain’s new flavors this year is a sufganiya topped with banana ganache and filled with a mix of caramel, chocolate and coffee beans, and accompanied by a “chaser,” which is a syringe of a coffee and toffee cream that you can inject into the doughnut as you are eating it.

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Credit: Photo Courtesy of Roladin

During this season, several cafes are also offering deep-fried croissants, trademarked as “cronuts” by Dominique Ansel Bakery in New York when it introduced this hybrid sweet that attracted global attention in 2013. Another indication of how creative sufganiyot have become is Burger King’s recent debut of a “SufganiKing,” a hamburger patty sandwiched between two fried doughnuts that are filled with ketchup.

Back at his downtown cafe, Kadosh, a 10th generation Jerusalemite, said he travels abroad at least five times a year to learn about different baking trends, and some of these ideas inspire the flavors for sufganiyot fillings. He said his staff is working around the clock in the bakery above the cafe to keep up with demand, as they sell about 3,000 sufganiyot a day.

“We don’t sleep during Hanukkah,” Kadosh said. “But the secret to our success is in the ingredients, which are of the highest quality and include premium butter. Margarine is a bad word here.”