If you know nothing else about Hanukkah, you likely know about the oil: Some 2,200 years ago, in Jerusalem, Jewish rebels kicked Greek-Syrian invaders out of an important temple and lit a menorah there to reconsecrate the building. They only had enough oil to keep it burning one night, but somehow, it lasted for eight — and the miracle of the oil is why fried foods abound during the Festival of Lights.
But you may not know about the doughnuts. Pillowy, dusted with powdered sugar, and encasing sweet filling, the pastries called sufganiyot (it kind of rhymes with “goof, pan, boat”) are a big part of Hanukkah celebrations in Israel but have been peripheral in the U.S. until recently. When Victoria Nam, who runs Siblings Bakery out of her Cumberland home, started offering sufganiyot last year, she says a handful of Jewish Mainers told her, “I didn’t even know this was a thing, but I’m so glad it is!”
Traditionally, sufganiyot are smallish and rounded, made with yeast dough and filled (on the top, not the side) with jelly or custard. In Maine, they’re tough to find outside the Portland metro (we know of no bakeries offering them elsewhere), where Tony’s Donut Shop, in Libbytown, was an early vendor, offering sufganiyot filled with everything from raspberry jam to blueberry jelly to Bavarian cream ever since a local rabbi petitioned the stalwart bakeshop a decade ago. At Rose Foods, a New York-style deli on Forest Avenue, they are, along with latkes, a holiday preorder treat, filled with a house-made Concord-grape jelly inspired by kosher Manischewitz wine.
“We don’t typically do a lot of changing our menu for Jewish holidays,” owner Chad Conley says. “Our first year, we tried doing hamantaschen and challah at certain times, and we tried making our own gefilte fish, but people just weren’t interested.” Not so for sufganiyot, he says, which the shop sold about 1,000 of last year, including plenty to gentiles who simply enjoy the indulgence and tradition.
Nam launched her cottage bakery last fall by offering her own spin on sufganiyot: sourdough doughnuts filled with rich apple butter. A restaurant-industry vet who’s married into a Jewish family, she worked at Munjoy Hill’s Belleville bakery until the pandemic temporarily closed it last year. Like seemingly half the country, she used her abundance of free time to get way into sourdough. “Sourdough all the time, all day long,” she says. “Hanukkah was coming up, and I had this doughnut recipe I’d developed and a bunch of apple butter I’d made, so I decided, why not combine the two?”
She applied for a home-food license, took to Instagram and Nextdoor with pics of her sufganiyot, and sold 300 of them within days, with orders coming in even after Hanukkah. “People were really into it,” she says. “I was shocked.” This fall, anticipating the doughnut-hungry hordes, she picked bushel after bushel of apples — since apple butter, unlike Hanukkah oil, can run out.