This is the first year I’ve been in Israel for Channukah. The biggest difference is the atmosphere surrounding it. In the United States, it’s all lights and decorations as Christmas is usually on the horizon, as well. In Israel, decorations are relatively limited, comprising a few large channukiyot in city squares and a few light displays against large buildings. There are no holiday lights strung along buildings and trees, no huge pre-holiday sales, and no color-themed attire or decorations.
From my perspective, Channukah is largely a holiday that just happens. There is little build-up to it outside of ensuring you have a channukiyah that can hold candles and buying enough candles for the eight days of the holiday. There is no big meal (unless it’s Shabbat, when there’s a big meal by default), no dietary restrictions, and generally no change to one’s everyday schedule.
Channukah is known for four primary things outside of its historical story and lighting the channukiyah: dreidels, gelt, latkes, and suvganiot. Having only ever had Dunkin Donuts jelly donuts as suvganiot in the past, I gladly spent this first Channukah in Israel sampling every possible suvganiah I could find. I thought that some would be better than others and that there would be some that weren’t as tasty, but boy was I wrong. Each suvganiah was undeniably delicious in its own right.
(Before reading on and thinking I’m an overly indulgent, sweets obsessed food vacuum, please note that these were eaten over the course of the eight-day holiday and were often shared with friends during suvganiot tastings).
My first suvganiah of the holiday set everything off to the perfect start. The chocolate bianco suvganiah was filled with a custard-like Italian cream and topped with a Belgian chocolate ganache with a white chocolate swirl. It was topped with crispy dark and white chocolate crumbles, giving each bite a nice crunch. The suvganiah also had a “chaser” of hazelnut chocolate that you injected into it before eating—it infused the doughy parts with a delicious flavor that complimented the chocolate and Italian cream wonderfully.
I followed this suvganiah up with the vodka double espresso one. This Belgian chocolate-covered, cocoa crumble-topped suvganiah obtained its name for the vodka espresso chaser that came with it. If you think that the vodka flavor was weak, you’re in for a surprise. The flavor of vodka was potent in the parts of the suvganiah that absorbed the chaser. It gave a decadent flavor to the suvganiah, whose rich chocolate and refreshing cream tasted wonderful, especially with the texturally contrasting cocoa crumbles.
Taking a break from chocolate, the next suvganiah was the halva kadaif. This sweet treat was filled with a halva ganache and topped with white chocolate sprinkled with pieces of kadaif (strands of pastry dough) and pistachio. The suvganiah was delicious, but definitely had a high sugar content. Like its chocolate-y counterparts, it had a great textural contrast between the soft dough, creamy center, and crunchy toppings.
Our next indulgence was the alfajors suvganiah (which is apparently a dulce de leche-esque treat). Filled with a French coconut vanilla cream and topped with dulce de leche, a dollop of whipped cream, and cake crumbles, this suvganiah is intensely sweet in a wonderful way. Something about its amazing caramel-like flavor and spongy dough truly captured the essence of Channukah.
What better to follow than the ultimate classic: filled with a simply strawberry jelly and dusted with powder sugar, the traditional Channukah suvganiah did not disappoint. Simple, but delicious and traditional in a way that can’t be beat.
At this point, we were ready to return to chocolatey goodness. The pistachio suvganiah was filled with a white chocolate pistachio ganache (how this is made is beyond me) and topped with Belgian chocolate and pistachio pieces. The pistachio cream had a surprisingly and refreshingly gentle flavor that complemented the dark chocolate well. The suvganiah was rich without being overly sweet, perfect for those looking for a treat that isn’t too indulgent.
The whipped cream suvganiah was similarly well balanced. It was also covered in Belgian chocolate but had a delicious, refreshing whipped cream filling that was not at all as sugary as expected. The interplay between the chocolate and cream was simply divine.
We next had another classic jelly suvganiah, but this one was homemade. During a Career Israel trip to the Negev, we visited a Moroccan woman’s house for dinner. The dinner was absolutely amazing, as were the suvganiot she made for dessert. It was filled with an unidentified fruit’s jelly and was perfectly (I can’t even stress just how perfect) spongy and light. This homemade wonder made our already extraordinary Moroccan dinner that much more memorable.
Our next suvganiah was the pavlova (a meringue-based dessert named for the Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova). Something about its white chocolate frosting and white and pink French meringue crumble topping made it look like it would be incredibly sweet, almost overly so. However, one bite made it clear that there was more to this suvganiah than meets the eye. It was filled with a mild and refreshing cheese that had the consistency of whipped cream. With its raspberry chaser (which had a touch of vodka), it tasted like a mini cheesecake. The French meringue pieces on top were satisfyingly crunchy, a great contrast to the creamy center. All in all, this one turned out to be one of our favorites.
To follow up our wonderful experience with the pavlova was our first and only suvganiah consumed in Jerusalem. During a trip to the Old City to view all the lit channukiyahs (in terribly cold, windy, and rainy conditions, mind you), we lit channukiyot and had dinner at Jeff Seidel’s (a very generous and hospitable philanthropist). For dessert, we had an amazing caramel suvganiah. The dough was so incredibly soft and fluffy and the caramel filling was so smooth and creamy that the suvganiah was just a pleasure to bite into. If only we had found out where the suvganiah was from…
Our final suvganiot were sampled at work—luckily, our company knows how to keep its employees happy. The first was quite plain-looking—just a little bit of caramel sticking out of the top of a suvganiah lightly coated in sugar. It was mostly doughy, but still good.
We followed it up with a suvganiah that was coated in dark chocolate and drizzled with caramel. It was filled with a custard-like cream. It was like an éclair, but with the added perk of caramel flavor and incredibly delicious chocolate frosting.
And finally, we had a pavlova-esque suvganiah. With white chocolate frosting, a chaser of raspberry, and meringue pieces on top, it was pretty much the pavlova but not quite as fancy. While I can’t be certain, I think these final three suvganiot were from Roladin, the bakery where we got most of our other suvganiot. I have the sense that they continued making slightly modified suvganiot as the holiday went on and they ran out of ingredients. Either way, though, they came out quite tasty.
And so, eight nights of Channukah and thirteen suvganiot later, the holiday known as the Festival of Lights ended. With no final large meal, no distinct blessings, and no rituals outside of cleaning dried wax and burnt candlewicks out of our used channukiyah, Channukah concluded as surreptitiously as it began.
Thinking ahead to next Channukah, when I will be in law school back in New York, I can’t help but already mourn the lack of creative and exciting suvganiot. But I’m going to keep my fingers crossed and hope that there may be a second miracle of Channukah: that New York bakeries catch on and start making some innovative and delicious suvganiot.