Fried food for Chanukah has been a tradition since before the 12th century. The custom was documented by Rabbi Maimon ben Yosef, the father of Maimonides, who cited that one should not be lenient when observing the mitzvot of Chanukah.
But sweet fried treats are relatively modern, with the norm being savory fried foods. Mushrooms, cheese, and meat were more commonly enjoyed until the 1500s, when slave labor made Caribbean- produced sugarcane inexpensive. By the 1600's,
or jelly donuts, were made for Christmas, Chanukah, and other special occasions. In Yiddish, the donuts were called
and were fried in schmaltz, good fat, or oil. According to Jewish food historian Gil Marks: "In Israel…
soon took the name
), from a 'spongy dough' mentioned in the Talmud,
, meaning 'sponge,' is so ancient that there is a question as to whether it was Semitic or Indo-European."
Brioche Vanilla Bean Donuts
Brioche is an enriched bread dough, made delicious by adding milk, butter, egg yolks, and sometimes oil. Homemade donuts are not hard to make. The same dough can be re-jigged to make savory fritters (see recipe below).
Yields about 13 donuts
1 cup whole milk
2 tablespoons, plus 1 teaspoon, dried yeast
2½ tablespoons warm (not hot) water
5½ cups, plus 2½ tablespoons, all-purpose flour... plus more for rolling
½ cup granulated sugar
2½ teaspoons sea salt
1 vanilla bean scraped or 1½ teaspoons vanilla bean paste
3 large eggs, plus 5 large egg yolks
10 ounces butter, room temperature
8 cups oil, for frying
1. Warm the milk in a small saucepan over low heat, to 105 F. Remove from heat. Sprinkle yeast over the milk and add water; allow mixture sit for about 15 minutes. It will thicken a bit.
2. Combine flour, granulated sugar, and salt in bowl of a stand mixer with a paddle attachment. Add yeast mixture, vanilla bean, eggs; and egg yolks; beat on medium-low speed to form a shaggy mass with no visible dry ingredients.
3. Add butter in three additions, waiting until each one is well blended before adding the next. Beat until the dough looks smooth.
4. Switch to a dough-hook attachment. Knead on medium-low speed for 10 minutes; dough should look smoother still, and most of it will gather around the dough hook. To see whether gluten has developed, take a golf ball-size piece of dough and stretch it gently between your thumbs and first two fingers on both hands. If it doesn't break or tear, but stretches enough to create a somewhat transparent swath of dough, it's good to go. If not, beat for another 5 minutes.
5. Grease a large bowl with cooking-oil spray; scrape dough into a bowl and cover with greased plastic wrap directly on the surface. Let sit for 30 minutes, then fold over to smooth the surface. Re-cover and refrigerate for 6-- or up to 15-- hours.
6. Uncover and transfer dough to a floured work surface. If you wish to make just one batch, divide dough in half (best to weigh it) and place the remaining dough in a freezer-safe gallon-size zip-top bag, sealing it as you press out any air. Freeze for up to 2 months.
7. Flour a rolling pin. Press down dough on work surface and roll into a rectangle about 9 by 10½ inches; the slab should be about 1/2-inch thick. Let it rest for 5 to 10 minutes.
8. Cut 13 or 14 4-inch square pieces of parchment paper, then grease their tops lightly with cooking-oil spray, and arrange them on two baking sheets.
9. Use the 3-inch cutter to cut 9 donuts, as close together as possible. Use the small cutter to cut out the doughnut holes. Place each doughnut on its own piece of parchment and gather the "holes" on their own piece or two of parchment. Gather dough scraps and re-roll to a thickness of ¾-inch (thicker than the first roll); cut 3 more donuts, placing them on the papers.
10. Cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise for at least 1 (up to 3) hour, in a draft-free spot; donuts should almost double in height. (If donuts are placed in a turned-off oven that had been preheated to 170 degrees, they will rise faster.) Place cooling rack over several layers of paper towels or a clean paper bag to absorb excess oil.
11. Heat oil to 325 F. in a large, deep, heavy pan or wok. Working with two or three at a time, slide the donuts on their papers into the hot oil; use tongs to pluck out the papers, which should float free. Flip the donuts right away; then turn them a total of 4 times over a total of 4 minutes, until golden brown and puffed. Continue with remaining donuts.
For the glaze
5 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
½ to ¾ cup hot tap water
2 teaspoons sea salt
Scrapings of 1 vanilla bean
1. Whisk together sugar, water, sea salt, and vanilla bean.
2. Dip cooled donuts into glaze and transfer to cooling rack. Glaze will set in a few minutes.
Laura Frankel is a noted kosher chef, a cookbook author, and Culinary Director for a media company. Currently, she serves as Director of Catering at Circle of Life catering at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El.