Savory Sufganiyot Offer a Different Taste of Hanukkah

Forget the strawberry filling or the sugary toppings. These savory pastries are stuffed with meat, or fish, or cheese. And they make everything else taste like kids’ stuff.

By Dana Kessler|December 20, 2016 12:00 AM


For Jews in America, where latkes rule, sufganiyot are mediocre, unimaginative jelly doughnuts that appear as an afterthought every Hanukkah. In Israel, however, sufganiyot [1] are a huge deal, and bakeries everywhere stock up: Everywhere you look in Israel, you see a huge variety of sufganiyot in bakery windows—and every year retailers add new flavors, which get more elaborate with each year that passes.

At the Roladin [2]chain of bakeries, for instance, you’ll find sufganiyot with names like Cream Cheese Pavlova (filled with vanilla-flavored Italian mascarpone cream cheese and topped with white chocolate, meringue bites, blueberries, and a little test tube filled with a raspberry-crème de cassis liqueur chaser) or St. Honoré, paying homage to the famous French cake (filled with caramel-flavored mascarpone cream cheese and topped with caramel, chocolate lace, chantilly cream, and profiteroles).

Many nouveau-sufganiyot feel as if they’re trying too hard, and make many people pine for the plain strawberry jam-filled variety—the kind preschoolers still get with powdered sugar on top, which are (to be honest) still the best. At fancy bakeries, these simple doughnuts are now dubbed “classic,” but they still represent the standard at supermarkets and grocery stores.

Whether they’re superfancy bakery pastries or simple treats for kids, Israel’s sufganiyot have one thing in common: They’re all sweet. Savory sufganiyot also exist, but stores and restaurants don’t typically carry them.

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I Googled the words “savory sufganiyot” (in Hebrew) and was happily surprised to find quite a few mentions. One of the most mouthwatering recipes [4]I found was for sufganiyot filled with goat cheese, honey, and thyme (and a few other ingredients), fried in olive oil and served with Parmesan shavings on top of a simple syrup made of water, sugar, and lemon. Chef Elinor Ilin Shachal developed the recipe a few years ago for an olive oil brand called Assi, as a way to persuade Israelis to fry even sweet sufganiyot in olive oil. “I have since made the goat cheese sufganiyot on several occasions, and they’re really very good,” she told me. When I asked her why she thinks it is virtually impossible to find savory sufganiyot in Israel, she replied: “Israelis are stuck in their ways. The Israeli palate is used to sweet sufganiyot and it’s difficult to change that. Our brains have been wired to believe that a sufganiya must be sweet.”

A couple of years ago, chef Sagi Azulay made savory sufganiyot as a Hanukkah special at Lavan restaurant, located inside the Jerusalem Cinematheque, where he used to serve as chef. The recipes for his unique sufganiyot can still be found online [5], but nowadays, you’ll have to make them yourself. If you do, try his savory sufganiyot that are filled with either lamb and mushrooms (see recipe here [6]); baby mozzarella, dried tomatoes, and pesto; or fish (any white fish, such as meagre [7], gilthead seabream [8], or white grouper), ricotta cheese, peppers, and herbs.

When I asked Azulay why restaurants and bakeries in Israel sell only sweet sufganiyot, he said that Israelis like what they’re used to; also, he noted, sweet sufganiyot are more profitable than savory ones. He thinks it’s a pity, though. “The dough isn’t really sweet, even when the sufganiyot are sweet,” he said. “It’s the fillings and the powdered sugar that make them sweet, so it’s only logical to make savory versions.”

Azoulay’s cheese-filled sufganiyot. (Photo: Efrat Lichtenstadt)

Azulay grew up eating savory sufganiyot, filled with meat or chickpeas, he told me: “My father’s side of the family is from Spain and this is a Spanish recipe, which is called lachmazikas in Ladino. Spanish Jews used to make them during Hanukkah. I imagine that even though the Jews appropriated them for Hanukkah, they are probably consumed in Spain all year long, just like the sfenj [9], which Moroccan Jews [10]make for Hanukkah but is sold in markets in Morocco all year long. When I created my savory sufganiyot, I was inspired by the ones filled with meat I remembered from my childhood, but vegetarians can fill them with chickpeas or with lentils, much like the Iraqi sambousek. The idea behind the ones filled with mozzarella came from savory sufganiyot I ate in Rome, which they sell in markets in Italy.”

These Italian sufganiyot are called panzerotti. Mena Strum, the top chef in Israel for Italian food, told me: “Sometimes they are round like sufganiyot and sometimes calzone-shaped.”

Ruth Keenan, cookbook author and food writer for Ynet, wrote about the Italian version a few years ago, recommending that Israelis make panzerotti at home for Hanukkah. “I think making savory sufganiyot is a great idea for Hanukkah,” Keenan told me. “People are already getting sick of all the crazy sweet sufganiyot that fill the country. Every year the sweet sufganiyot get crazier and crazier, and the problem is that many of the new inventions just don’t work! I think savory sufganiyot would work great. They can be filled with cheese, like in Italy, or with meat or vegetables, like the empanada, samosa, or kibbeh.”

Bamba sufganiyot. (Photo: Boaz Lavi)

While the internet is full of recipes for savory sufganiyot, I could not find places in Israel that actually sell them. Biscotti café and bakery in Bnei Brak and Petach Tikva will be selling Bamba [11]-flavored sufganiyot this year, a sort of semi-savory version. (Made from peanut-butter-flavored puffed corn, Bamba [12]is perhaps the No. 1 children’s snack in the country; adults love it, too.) Since Israelis love sufganiyot and they love Bamba, Biscotti decided to blend the two favorites by filling doughnuts with peanut butter crème and topping them with crispy Bamba crumble.

Then, earlier this month, Burger King announced that its restaurants in Israel will be selling the “SufganiKing [13]” this Hanukkah: a Whopper with all the usual extras (lettuce, tomato, pickle, etc.) inside a sufganiya. Israeli Burger King CEO Steve Ben Shimol told the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot: “For us, matchmaking between these two popular dishes in Israel was inevitable.”

It’s different, and it’s certainly not a standard, sweet jelly doughnut. But if you want to try truly original savory sufganiyot, filled with meat or fish or cheese, you’ll have to make them at home this year.

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