Hanukkah and Hot Oil Cook Up More Than Latkes

  • Federal Donuts Za’atar Fried Chicken. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Jennifer Chase for The Washington Post.

  • Salted Tahini Doughnuts. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Jennifer Chase for The Washington Post.

The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Hanukkah is known as the Festival of Lights, but it is also the Festival of Fried Foods, and a perfect time for consuming guilt-free doughnuts and fried chicken.

Why fry? Oil is central to the Jewish holiday, which commemorates the victory of rebellious Maccabees over Syrian Greeks in 165 B.C. When the Jews went to clean up and rededicate the ransacked temple, they needed eight days to prepare sacred oil for the temple lamps and candelabras. Although they found just a single small vial of purified oil, enough for one day, so the story goes, that little bit of oil lasted eight days until more could be made.

Jews around the world observe Hanukkah, which began at sundown on Tuesday night, by lighting a nine-branched menorah and eating foods fried in oil. Many people know of and make latkes — pancakes made of potatoes, vegetables and/or cheese.

But those fried treats, first recorded as ricotta cheese pancakes in 14th-century Italy, came late to the party. Precursors to the modern doughnut, fried yeasted doughs sweetened with honey and syrups, have been around since ancient Greece.

This year, a cookbook that focuses on two major fried food groups has come along just in time to help us with holiday feasting. Federal Donuts: The (Partially) True Spectacular Story is the quirky story of how Mike Solomonov, named the nation’s outstanding chef at the 2017 James Beard Awards, and his business partner Steven Cook, along with three other business partners — Tom Henneman, Bob Logue and Felicia D’Ambrosi — turned a great American passion for doughnuts into a Philadelphia destination.

About five years ago, Solomonov says, the partners wanted to create an old-fashioned doughnut. At the same time, they were eating lots of Korean glazed chicken wings. One discussion led to another, which led to the idea of a low-tech, inexpensive venture that sold three things: doughnuts, fried chicken and coffee.

Then came oil-filled nights, raw doughnuts, long lines, some angry social media because of restaurant food shortages and a doughnut robot with a personality all its own. Still, the partners persevered, and today there are six Federal Donut locations in Philadelphia and one in Miami.

“You don’t need a doughnut every day of your life,” Solomonov says. “But being indulgent is sometimes part of living,” which brings us back to doughnuts, fried chicken and Hanukkah.

Doughnuts for Hanukkah have a special connection to Israel, where, according to Solomonov, “something like 7 million or some shocking number are eaten over the eight-day holiday.”

The Federal Donuts cookbook breaks down each recipe with helpful photos and lots of behind-the-scenes moments. The doughnuts are born from a cake-style dough that yields a light and fluffy crumb and is simpler than a yeasted dough.

The book’s recipe for crisp fried chicken may be a small revelation to lots of cooks, with its seasoning blend that works like a dry brine, a nondairy cornstarch batter, a double frying and final dusting of the za’atar-sumac blend.

Salted Tahini Doughnuts

14 to 18 servings (plus holes)

The doughnut dough can also be mixed by hand. You will need an instant-read or candy thermometer, a round cutter that’s slightly less than 3 inches in diameter or a glass with the equivalent opening, and a 1-inch round cutter or even an apple corer.

Federal Donuts recommends using Soom brand tahini, made in Philadelphia. Baharat is a Middle Eastern spice blend that typically includes cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, cumin, paprika and black pepper. It is available via gourmet purveyors online.


For the doughnuts

12 large egg yolks

1 cup granulated sugar

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1¼ cups buttermilk

3½ cups flour, plus 1 cup for rolling and cutting

1½ teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon baharat (spice blend; see headnote)

Canola or peanut oil, for frying

For the tahini glaze

3¾ cups confectioners’ sugar

½ cup tahini (see headnote)

½ cup water

1 tablespoon kosher salt

½ cup roasted/toasted sesame seeds


For the dough: Combine the egg yolks and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer or use a handheld electric mixer; beat on low speed for about 3 minutes, until ribbons start to form in the mixture and the color lightens. Over the next 30 seconds, gradually add the melted/cooled butter in a steady stream.

Add all the buttermilk at once, beating for about 5 seconds until just incorporated.

Whisk together the 3½ cups of flour, the salt, baking soda, baking powder and baharat in a mixing bowl, then add to the buttermilk mixture all at once. Beat on low speed for about 30 seconds, until incorporated. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Beat on medium-low speed for 20 to 30 seconds, until the dough looks smooth and starts to pull away from sides of the bowl.

Prepare a counter work space by fastening a large piece of parchment paper with tape at the corners. Have the 1 cup of flour nearby to use as needed; use about ½ cup of it to flour the parchment paper.

Scrape down the paddle attachment and turn all the dough out onto the floured paper. Dust the top of the dough with some of the remaining ½ cup of flour, sprinkling the edges as well. Flour your hands and a rolling pin, although you may not need the latter, because the dough is soft.

Pat or roll out the dough into a ½-inch-thick rectangle, about 10 by 14½ inches. Add more flour to prevent sticking, but remember to use a pastry brush to clear away any excess flour on the dough and parchment. Unfasten the parchment from the counter, then slide it and the dough onto the back of a baking sheet. Freeze for up to 30 minutes so the dough firms up.

Flour the cutters. Cut a total of 14 to 18 doughnuts and as many doughnut holes as you can, rerolling the scraps as needed.

Return the baking sheet with the shaped doughnuts to the freezer until ready to fry.

(At this point, the frozen rings can be wrapped in plastic and stored in the freezer for up to 2 days. Let defrost slightly before frying.)

When you’re ready to fry the doughnuts, heat 2 or 3 inches’ worth of the oil in a wide, heavy pot (preferably enameled cast-iron) over medium to medium-low heat, until the oil temperature reaches 375 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with paper towels, then seat a wire rack over it.

Use a spatula to transfer four of the dough rings to the oil. After about 90 seconds, the undersides will begin to brown; flip the doughnuts with a slotted spoon. Fry for another 60 to 90 seconds until golden brown and puffy. (Doughnut holes take 60 to 90 seconds and tend to flip themselves.) Use a slotted spoon to transfer the doughnuts to the wire rack to drain. Make sure the oil returns to 375 degrees before frying each subsequent batch.

While the doughnuts cool for 20 minutes, make the glaze: Whisk together the confectioners’ sugar, tahini, water, salt and sesame seeds in a mixing bowl, until smooth.

Dunk the doughnuts and holes in the glaze and return to the wire rack to set before serving.

Federal Donuts’ Za’atar Fried Chicken

Makes 10 pieces

Fried chicken waits for no one, so have your spice blend ready before you heat the oil. Toss this especially crispy chicken in its simple but terrific combination of Middle Eastern za’atar and sumac after it has been fried a second time.

You’ll need an instant-read thermometer. In testing, we found that we could reduce the amounts of batter and the za’atar coating, and those amounts are reflected in the recipe here.

Za’atar is a spice blend that typically includes dried herbs (often hyssop or thyme), sumac, sesame seeds and salt. Ground sumac lends citrusy notes and color here; both are available at Middle Eastern markets, Penzeys and at many Whole Foods Markets.

Make ahead: The seasoned, dry-rubbed chicken needs to “cure” for at least 4 hours in the refrigerator, and up to overnight.


For the chicken

1½ tablespoons kosher salt

4 teaspoons onion powder

2 teaspoons powdered mustard

One 4-pound chicken, cut into 10 pieces (2 wings, 2 thighs, 2 drumsticks and 2 breast halves each cut in half)

8 to 12 cups canola oil, for frying

½ cup za’atar (see headnote)

½ cup ground sumac (see headnote)

For the batter

1½ cups cornstarch

¾ cup flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1½ cups cold water


For the chicken: Combine the salt, onion powder and powdered mustard in a large mixing bowl. Add the chicken parts and get in there with your hands to coat each piece well. Arrange them on a rimmed baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or up to overnight.

For the batter: Whisk together the cornstarch, flour and salt in a mixing bowl. Gradually add the water, whisking to form a smooth batter with the consistency of a thin pancake batter.

When you’re ready to fry, transfer the chicken to the counter top so that it comes to a cool room temperature. Heat enough of the oil in a large, deep pot (preferably enameled cast-iron) to a temperature of 300 degrees so that the chicken pieces will be submerged. Be careful not to overfill. Line a rimmed baking sheet with paper towels.

Dip each chicken piece into the batter to fully coat. Use tongs or a slotted spoon to transfer the battered legs and thighs into the oil, being careful not to splash up any hot oil. After 1 minute, add the wings; after 3 minutes, the breast pieces.

Use a large metal spoon to gently separate any pieces that may be sticking together or to the bottom of the pot.

After 10 minutes total, use a slotted spoon to transfer the chicken pieces to drain on the paper towels. (The chicken won’t be fully cooked; there’s a second fry.)

Let the chicken rest for 15 to 20 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk together the za’atar and sumac in a mixing bowl. Seat a wire rack over the paper towel-lined baking sheet.

Reheat the oil to 350 degrees. Fry the chicken pieces again, this time for four minutes, or until golden brown and crispy. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the chicken pieces to the wire rack to drain for less than a minute.

Drop the hot, twice-fried chicken pieces right into the bowl with the spice blend and dust to coat evenly. Serve warm.

Susan Barocas is a Washington writer, caterer and cooking instructor.