Hanukkah is different for everybody, and for years now mine has been almost minimalist: I dig a menorah out of the closet, buy a set of 45 candles, and pick a night — just one — to fry latkes. I don’t mess with gifts. I don’t eat Hanukkah gelt. I don’t even spin a dreidel (I’ve long forgotten how to play).
No, for me the holiday is all about two things: fire and oil. I guess that makes me a traditionalist, since those are symbols straight from the Hanukkah story. In that tale, a group of Jewish soldiers successfully take back a temple from their enemies, but they only have enough olive oil to burn for one night of light and warmth. And yet somehow — miracle alert! — that one-day reserve of oil burns for eight days and eight nights, long enough for the soldiers to survive (and find more olive oil).
I’m a secretly sentimental person already, but the idea of holding on even when you’re running on fumes has resonated even more with me these past three years. So I love lighting my menorah and contemplating hope as the fire dies down.
My affection for Hanukkah oil is a little more hedonistic. It’s all about the latkes and sufganiyot. Hot, crispy fried potatoes and warm jelly-filled doughnuts are on my top ten list of foods all year long, so I naturally lean into this holiday that commands me to make both at the same time. (And no, I don’t mind the smell; who doesn’t want to feel like they live in a doughnut shop?)
But as much as I love these foods, not even I can fathom deep-frying for eight days and eight nights. So this year, like always, I’ll deep-fry potatoes and dough one night. And for all the other nights, I’ll get my olive oil fix via cakes and cookies instead.
I’m not sure why this has never occurred to me before. It’s so perfect: Olive oil cakes provide Hanukkah’s signature ingredient in a tidy, golden package. Cake requires none of the splattering of deep-frying but provides all the celebratory vibes of a doughnut. And maybe most importantly, olive oil cakes avoid the main problem with fried foods: shelf life. Whereas sufganiyot and latkes are best eaten right away, olive oil cakes only get better as they age. I fully plan on eating slices of this Olive Oil Bundt Cake for at least five nights of Hanukkah. Or four nights. (OK, it should definitely last me at least three.)
Because eight days is a long time to expect any cake to last, there will be multiple Hanukkah bakes. Midway through the holiday, I’ll bake my colleague Molly’s Chocolate Olive Oil Cake. With its low profile and crumbly chocolate topping, it’s definitely a snacking cake, which means I’ll probably eat a slice with every meal. But hey, Hanukkah isn’t just at night, you know? This cake lets me celebrate around the clock.
But will it carry through to the final night of Hanukkah? Probably not. So I’m putting one more olive oil bake on my agenda. These cardamom- and turmeric-spiked Olive Oil-Orange Sugar Cookies were my favorite cookie last holiday season. (No lie: I doubled the spiced sugar coating so I could have extra for my oatmeal.) This year I’ll make a batch to carry me through days seven and eight. And if I have any leftover (that’s a big if), that’s actually ideal. Because this year the last night of Hanukkah just happens to fall on a cookie-loving holiday: Christmas.
Cover photo (Olive Oil Bundt Cake) by Kristin Teig; food styling by Liz Neily.