12 Wondrous Hanukkah Cookies From Classic to Clever
From traditional Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Mizrahi Hanukkah cookies to vegan and gluten-free treats, there’s something here for everyone. Plus, our all-new Hanukkah Citrus Sugar Cookies are destined to become a classic!
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Hanukkah Citrus Sugar Cookies recipe by the author; photograph by Olga Ivanova
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Think Hanukkah food, and chances are good that latkes and fried pastries — like sufganiyot (Israeli jelly doughnuts), bimuelos (or buñuelos, depending on where you’re from), and sfenj — or maybe cheese (as a tribute to the heroine Judith) come to mind. In other words, delicious treats that require someone to play short-order cook, and are best eaten right away.
I can get into making latkes a couple of times during Hanukkah, and if I’m feeling ambitious, I might tackle a yeasty fried dessert. But I honestly don’t have the desire or inclination to fry up batches of latkes for eight nights running (and, oh yeah, make dinner, too). Our kitchen doesn’t have an exhaust hood or windows, either, so after all of the prep and inevitable grease splatters, I end up with a house that smells like a diner and an air purifier running on overdrive.
My under-enthusiasm for frying aside, I’m far from ambivalent about festive Hanukkah fare. Olive oil’s on stage throughout the festival. Cheese and wine get plenty of play too, because I really dig the Judith lore. And then, there are cookies. The beauty of cookies lies in their do-ahead friendliness, giftability, and potential simplicity (or not, if you want to flex your creative muscles and spend hours decorating them). However you slice — or drop, or roll ‘em — cookies are fun. That’s my kind of holiday treat.
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Tips for cookie baking success
No matter what sort of holiday cookies you decide to make, here are some general rules of thumb that’ll help ensure success.
1. Read the recipe before you start baking
Okay, this isn’t really cookie-specific advice, but it’s always a good idea to get an overview of the recipe you’re making. When it comes to cookies, you may find you need special equipment, or that you’ll have to account for dough chilling or cookie cooling time.
2. Measure your flour properly
Don’t scoop; instead, spoon flour into your measuring cup, and sweep a knife across the top to level it, taking care not to compress the flour. Otherwise, you may end up using too much flour, and with dense, dry cookies.
3. If the recipe tells you to chill the dough, do it
This is especially important if you’ll be rolling out the dough for cut-out cookies. If you skip this step, the dough will not only be hard to work with, it’s likely to spread too much while baking.
4. Line your baking sheets
Use silicone liners (such as Silpat baking mats) or baking parchment to line your baking sheets. This eliminates the need for greasing your pans, and prevents the cookies from sticking.
5. Give your cookies space
Resist the temptation to fit as many cookies on the baking sheet as possible. Allow at least an inch between cookies so they have room to spread without merging into a giant, shapeless cookie. It’ll be a lot easier to remove the baked cookies from the sheet without breaking them, too, if you have room to maneuver a spatula.
6. Cool properly
Check the instructions, but for most recipes you’ll want to let the cookies cool on the baking sheet for a couple of minutes before transferring them to a cooling rack. This gives them a chance to firm up a bit so they’re less likely to break. And always cool completely before decorating, unless the recipe instructions suggest otherwise.
Pure olive oil was a big deal in ancient Israel. It was a source not just of food, but of light; it had an important place in Temple rituals, and was even used to anoint kings. It’s central to the Hanukkah story, too, thanks to a single flask of pure olive oil that miraculously fueled the holy Temple’s menorah light for eight nights instead of one (more on that in my latke article here).
So it’s always baffled me that the holiday’s traditional foods are fried in just about every oil except olive, especially after EVOO’s popularity and accessibility exploded in the early 1980s. I stubbornly maintain that olive oil is a must for Hanukkah latke- and donut-frying. And since I often bake with olive oil, I wanted to feature it in a Hanukkah cookie recipe, too.
If olive oil in cookies sounds strange, consider this: It lends subtle fruity notes to the supple, easy-to-handle dough, and has a natural affinity for the citrus zest that flavors it. Plus, by replacing the butter commonly used in cut-out cookies, it renders the cookies dairy-free, which is a boon for those with allergies and kosher keepers alike.
What I especially love is the versatility of this dough. You can use it to make ultra-simple chill-and-slice icebox cookies (see photo below), or roll it out and shape it with cookie cutters. This is the perfect time of year to make use of those Star of David, menorah, and dreidel cookie cutters in the back of your cabinet. The dough is flavorful enough to use plain, but you can also jazz it up with mix-ins, like sprinkles (funfetti-style!) or mini chocolate chips.
Hanukkah Citrus Sugar Cookies, prepared using the chill-and-slice icebox method; photograph by Olga Ivanova
If you go the cookie cutter route (see photo below), your decoration options abound. Before baking, you can sprinkle the cookie shapes with sanding sugar or sprinkles. If you prefer to decorate after baking, you can drizzle the cooled cookies with melted chocolate (or dip them for more coverage). Or, pipe or flood the cutouts with royal icing or frost with buttercream.
Hanukkah Citrus Sugar Cookies, prepared using cookie cutters; photograph by Olga Ivanova
Sephardic and Mizrahi Hanukkah cookie recipes
American-style sugar cookies are relatively new additions to the Jewish cookie jar. The cookies in this section are just a few examples of Hanukkah treats from throughout the Jewish diaspora.
There are as many variations on classic biscochos as there are Jewish cooks around the world who prize the little ring-shaped cookies. This version is subtly flavored with vanilla, and can be topped with sesame seeds if desired.
Maamoul are date- or nut-filled cookies popular throughout the Middle East and North Africa. They have cross-cultural appeal as a special occasion cookie, served during Eid, Easter, and — for Jewish families that hail from the Arab world — during Purim, Hanukkah, and Rosh Hashanah. This vegan take on the classic can be made with butter, milk, and honey instead of coconut oil, plant milk, and agave if you want a more traditional recipe.
These may not be traditional Hanukkah cookies, but the olives and olive oil make them a perfect fit for the holiday — and for a Judith-inspired cheese board.
Hanukkah gelt cookie recipes
I felt so clever the first time I made thumbprint-style cookies with Hanukkah gelt. Now there are versions all over the internet, but I’m willing to forgo originality if there’s a piece of chocolate in my cookie.
Cream cheese and confectioner’s sugar give these chocolate-topped cookies their signature melt-in-the-mouth texture.
If you don’t feel like peeling the foil wrappers off a bunch of chocolate coins, these gorgeous gilded cookies will still have a gelt-like vibe. (Then again, do you really want to skip the double-dose of chocolate?)
Miss summer? These graham cracker, marshmallow, and chocolate gelt confections bring a little campfire cuisine to your mid-winter celebration, which is (sort-of) the whole point of Hanukkah’s light-in-the-darkness theme.
Gluten-free and vegan Hanukkah cookie recipes
If you need gluten-free or vegan cookies, many of the recipes on this list can be made with a GF 1:1 flour replacer instead of all-purpose flour, or with plant-based butters or milks. But if you’re not up for experimentation, these recipes are ready to go.
How rugelach became associated with Hanukkah is unclear, but according to the late food historian Gil Marks, it was a development that happened in 20th century America; it may have something to do with the cream cheese-based dough popular in the US, and the tradition to eat dairy during the holiday. This recipe is already egg-free, so if you opt for non-dairy butter and cream cheese, it’s easy to turn vegan.
The natural blue hue of these cookies comes from blackberries instead of food coloring, and feels just right for Hanukkah. The egg-free recipe includes tips for making them vegan or gluten-free.
Fancy Hanukkah cookie recipes
If you want a creative project — and wow-inspiring cookies just right for gifting — these Hanukkah cookies fit the bill
The swirls in these mesmerizing little morsels are meant to evoke the dizzy spin of a dreidel. If you don’t need to keep them pareve (dairy-free), feel free to swap the margarine for butter.
These sweet treats are like Hanukkah-themed Linzer cookies. Small Hanukkah cookie cutters help minimize the prep time, but if you can’t find any, you can use a paring knife to cut “windows” for the jam.
You’ll need a set of alphabet cookie stamps, some patience, and a sense of punny wordsmithery to craft the imprint effect on these quippy Hanukkah cookies. If this recipe is a cookie-decorating rabbit hole, it’s one we’ll happily dive into.
More Hanukkah inspiration
Find all the recipes you could possibly need for eight delicious nights of Hanukkah.