Season Of Miracles

All that glitters...

All that glitters...

To fry or not to fry? That was the question. Allusions to William Shakespeare aside, I’ve been tossing around that question for a week or so. It’s not as profound as Hamlet’s version, is it?

Here’s why the question has been on my mind: The first night of Hanukkah is this Friday and in a cloud of creative confusion I find I am resistant to the idea of writing about latkes. You don’t need me to tell you how to make potato pancakes, do you? Step one: Shred potato. Step two: fry. Step three: top with sour cream or applesauce and eat. Thanks for reading, see you next week.

Oh sure, I know there are a zillion variations. Shred some carrot or parsnip into the potato mixture. Add various spices. Add an egg. All are really delicious, but truly it would be like me telling you how to boil a pot of pasta.

My other choice is to write about Sufganiyot. For the uninitiated, these are the jelly doughnuts that seem to have overtaken latkes as the Hanukkah food of choice in Israel.

How, you wonder, did they make the leap from potato pancakes to jelly doughnuts? It’s all in the story of Hanukkah.

After winning a battle against a supposedly unbeatable foe, the Jews went to re-light the eternal flame in their decimated temple. They found enough oil to keep the flame burning for only one day. Retrieving more lamp oil required an eight day round-trip ride. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days, keeping the eternal flame lit until the refill arrived. This is the miracle that is commemorated on the dreidel, the little top that kids spin during the festival. The letters on the four sides of the dreidel are the initials of the Hebrew words that translate as, “A Great Miracle Happened.”

It is the oil in this legend that Hanukkah foods all have in common: both the latkes and the jelly doughnuts are fried. Sephardic Jews fry fritters, and the Italians eat fried chicken. (Leave it to the Italians to really get it right.)

Which brings me back to my initial issues about frying: I really didn’t want to. One session of frying will smell up my apartment for days. Besides I operate under the shaky assumption that food fried at home will be bad for me; I only eat fried food in better restaurants. I trust them more. I am deluded.

I kept thinking, “I wonder if there is such a thing as a baked Sufganiyot?”; “Why don’t I just try to bake a doughnut recipe?”; “Google Baked Doughnuts.”

In the midst of all this I went to the dentist. Sitting in her chair, waiting for the Novocain-induced haze to wash over me, I opened her copy of “Good Housekeeping” magazine, and, boom! flash! a holiday miracle: a recipe for baked Sufganiyot. That was my divine signal, my rainbow, my tap on the shoulder.

Setting to work on their recipe (triple tested in their kitchens!) I found myself giddy with anticipation. I could practically taste the fluffy little puffs of sugar-dusted, jelly-filled Hanukkah happiness. My thoughts went to a long-ago trip to Nantucket and the legendary subtle doughnuts from the Downyflake Restaurant. My Kitchen Aid did its work, the yeast then applied its airy lift to the sticky dough, and my oven baked them to a pale toasty brown. I eagerly cut little pockets into them and filled them with strawberry jam. After dusting them with powdered sugar, I stepped back to survey the finished result which looked so simple and beautiful. Finally I lifted one to my mouth and took that magical first bite.

How can I best describe this decisive moment in my baking experience?

My sufganyot. Yech...

My sufganiyot. Yech...

Easily: these Sufganiyot tasted awful. I’ll add a “Yech” to erase any lingering doubt. The cinnamon in the recipe was overpowering and the hoped for lightness was a missing. In its place was a heavy, bready, overly sweet lump. Yes, doughnuts are supposed to be sweet, but this was sweetness without balance. Sugar usually boosts the other flavors in things, but here it was all dressed up with no place to go.

So where’s my Hanukkah miracle? I think this year it came in the form of the realization that if you want a jelly doughnut, then have a real jelly doughnut. One fried doughnut once a year isn’t going to kill me. I’ve never been a doughnut guy; they don’t temp me at other times of the year. And if you don’t want to fry doughnuts, seek out the pros who do (I’ll be getting mine at Silver Moon Bakery, a wonderful place in my neighborhood.)

It was with a heavy heart (probably caused by the awful Sufganiyot) that I also discovered a “truth” about myself, a moment of self revelation, as it were. At the checkout counter of my local Duane Reade I spied their yearly stock of Hanukkah gelt, the little web bags of chocolate coins. I bought a couple of bags—mostly with the purpose of photographing them for this blog posting (I swear!)—and realized as I snapped open the coins and ate the chocolate inside, that I can live without jelly doughnuts, I can forego latkes, but I can’t imagine being without chocolate. The Israelis can have their Sufganiyot, the Sephardim their fritters, the Italians their fried chicken; henceforth my Hanukkah commemorative food will be chocolate.  

You don’t have to fry chocolate.

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A Cookie Triptych

A Cookie Triptych

This past weekend I made cookies for my friend, the artist Laura Loving’s Holiday Open Gallery. I could not help but to be inspired by her iconic art.

The cookies I made blended a little Christmas sensibility with her well known riffs on the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower. I added my own riff on an icon with little chocolate wreaths that were inspired by Wedgewood Jasper china.

More about Christmas cookies in an upcoming blog posting, in the meantime here are the cookies from Laura’s Open Gallery.

 
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