The first day of Hanukkah spells Hanukkah desserts. Join us as we look at the Jewish tradition of Hanukkah and consider the dessert options available to us over the next eight days. If this is your first Hanukkah, we’ll begin with the origins. Then we’ll jump straight into desserts and all the local Jewish bakeries that are open near you.
As mentioned, Hanukkah is a holiday that lasts eight days based on the Jewish lunar calendar. Why eight days of celebrations? The Jewish people are celebrating a miracle that happened in 168 BC. Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Greek-Syrian king, ordered to desecrate the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, breaking and demolishing everything. At that time, electricity was yet to be invented. So after the assault, there was no olive oil left to light the candles of the hanukiah (or chanukkiyah), the candlelight with 9 candle placeholders. It is believed that after the victory, there was only enough oil to keep the lamp burning for one day.
Miraculously, the temple candle continued to burn for eight days, the time it took them to produce new olive oil. We see the hanukiah holds nine candles, the ninth being the shammash servant candle which is used to light the other eight candles. That is why we know it as the Festival of Lights.
During Hanukkah there’s an emphasis on various meals fried in oil. This means plenty of custard or jam-filled sufganiyot. This is a type of deep-fried pastry similar to a doughnut, made from sweet yeast dough. Bakers fill them with plain red jelly (usually strawberry or sometimes raspberry), and top them with sugar. In this day and age, we’re lucky to find them with extra fillings like vanilla or chocolate cream, and caramel. Sometimes people will even fill them with dulce de leche or coffee!
Jewish Italians typically celebrate with cassola, a fried sweet ricotta pancake. Some call it the original latke, but it tastes very similar to cheesecake. As a side note, most latkes today are made from potatoes. Fritelle di riso is another of the Hanukkah desserts from Italy. It’s a sweet rice fritter that generally includes flavours of rum, cinnamon, and orange. These fritters sometimes include raisins too. Another fritter-type dessert that’s more readily available are bimuelos with honey, which originated in Spain. You can still find them under the name buñuelo. For more Italian inspired desserts we recommend this. Jewish Indians enjoy gulab jamun, a similar milk-based dough ball that is fried and soaked in sweet syrup before being decorated with crunchy almonds or cashews.
Of course your local Jewish bakery will have a plethora of non-fried dessert options if you’ve had too many strawberry-jam sufganiyot or potato latkes. There’s the fruity Shabbat cake or mandelbrot. The latter is a biscotti type biscuit. Don’t confuse it with the Polish-born French-American mathematician! But you can always stick to shortbread cookies, if in doubt.
We’re special fans of the rugelach, a crescent shaped pastry similar to cinnamon crescents. But these can have chocolate, jam, fruit, and poppy seeds as fillings too. While there are pareve versions, some make their rugelach with sour cream or cream cheese in their doughs. For information on cinnamon crescents specifically, you can read our post Where to Find Great Cinnamon Crescents? You’ll learn about Pliny the Elder’s fantastic tale about the African cinnamon birds!
But back to Hanukkah, we can’t forget the babka, aka ‘little grandmother’. It is similar to the kokosh, which is more popular in Canadian Jewish bakeries. The sweet babka bread apparently gets its name from the traditional babka pan, which resembles a grandmother’s skirt. Others believe the name comes from grandmothers combining seeds with challah scraps. Whatever the origins, when you give us a slice studded in chocolate, we’ll eat it without question.
For a complete list of Jewish goodies, we have you covered for the next eight days and beyond. Whether it’s a jam-filled sufganiyot, a chocolate and cinnamon rugelach, or the infamous chocolate babka, enjoy your Hanukkah desserts and Hanukkah Sameach!