Hanukkah has always been my favorite Jewish holiday. I love all of it: Friends and family gathering together, watching children open their presents, cheery songs to sing when lighting the candles, the celebration of triumph over evil and the opportunity to eat fried food and happily justify it. Of course, no Jewish holiday is complete without each family’s edible traditions.
Our family are Bagdadi Jews from Bombay and Calcutta, and have wonderful culinary traditions from Iraq and India for every Jewish holiday. For example, cheese sambusak are always served to break the Yom Kippur fast, and leek fritters are always served at our Rosh Hashanah seder. On Hanukkah, we enjoy all sorts of delicious fried food, from latkes and donuts to zalabia; however, I am always on the lookout for something new to add to our repertoire.
My Aunty Ruby who grew up in Calcutta, India recalls being taken as a child by her parents to KC Dass, a sweet shop close to where they lived, after Passover to have gulab jamun: a small, milky donut which has been deep-fried and soaked in cardamom and saffron syrup. She said they would dream about the little creamy treats all Passover, and would count down the minutes until they could eat them.
This got me thinking that they would make an amazing addition to our Hanukkah table: They’re fried, to symbolize the oil lasting eight days; they contain dairy, to celebrate the heroism of Judith, slayer of the general Holofernes; and they’re soaked in syrup — well there doesn’t need to be a reason to eat anything soaked in syrup!
Gulab jamun is one of India’s most famous deserts, though it was introduced by the Persians around 500 BC. The word “gulab” is derived from the Persian words “gol” (flower) and “ab” (water), which refer to the sweet’s rose water-scented syrup. Interestingly, gulab jamun is commonly served at Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, which, much like our own festival of lights, Haunkkah, celebrates bringing light into the world and good triumphing over evil.
For the syrup:
- 4 green cardamom pods, bashed in a pestle and mortar
- 500 g caster sugar
- 2 tsp rosewater
- ¼ tsp saffron strands
For the gulab jamun:
- 1 tsp ground cardamom
- 1 tsp caster sugar
- 100 g milk powder
- 40 g plain flour
- ½ tsp baking powder
- 50 g softened unsalted butter, cut into cubes
- 1 Tbsp natural yogurt
- squeeze of lemon juice
- 3 Tbsp whole milk
- sunflower oil (or any other neutral oil), for frying
- 2 tsp crushed pistachios, slivered almonds and/or silver leaf
- Make the syrup by gently heating the sugar and cardamom in 500 ml water in a saucepan. Once it comes to a boil, lower the temperature and simmer for 10 mins. Remove from heat, add the rosewater and a pinch of saffron, and leave to infuse. Set aside.
- To make the gulab jamun, sieve ground cardamom, sugar, milk powder, flour and baking powder into a mixing bowl.
- Rub in the 50 g butter using your fingertips until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
- Add the yogurt, lemon juice and 3 Tbsp milk. Mix to form a soft dough, taking care not to overwork the mixture.
- Oil your hands with a little sunflower oil and shape small portions of the dough into walnut-sized balls, about 3 cm in diameter and 20 g each. Make sure the dumplings are smooth and have no cracks or folds.
- Reheat the syrup until it comes to the boil, then turn off the heat and cover with a lid.
- Heat the oil in a deep saucepan. Once the top is shimmering, the oil is hot enough for frying. Test the oil with a piece of bread to ensure that it sizzles. Fry the balls in batches over medium heat for 5-7 mins. (As soon as you drop one in, move it around immediately with a spoon to ensure it doesn’t catch on the bottom of the pan.)
- Once the balls are even and dark golden brown, remove them from the oil and let them drain on paper towel.
- Once cooled, add to the balls warm syrup and leave to soak at room temperature for at least 2-3 hours, if not overnight.
- Eat warm or at room temperature, and garnish with slivered almonds, crushed pistachios and/or silver leaf for a special decoration.
- Prep Time: 15 minutes + 2 hours soaking time
- Cook Time: 30 minutes
- Category: Dessert
- Method: Baking
- Cuisine: Holiday