Gelt Trip: A Taste Test

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Whether you see these chocolate coins as Hanukkah gelt, Christmas stocking stuffers, Kwanzaa favors or edible moola for Texas Hold 'Em, they ought to be good enough to eat.

We've noticed over the years, to crib a kvetchy old sentiment, that some brands of gelt are not so good -- and they come in such small portions! Some gold-colored mesh bags we've come across lately have as few as four coins each.

The story of gelt ("money" in Yiddish) comes from a less-gilded age, of course. For Hanukkah, which starts at sundown on Christmas Day this year, various attributions of giving are almost as illuminating as the holiday's menorah itself.

Plausible origins include ancient rabbinical commentary on the distribution of money so that each household could afford to light candles each of the eight nights of the holiday. Another points to the minting of commemorative "war-medal" coins about 2,400 years ago, after the first celebration of Hanukkah in Jerusalem.

(For most of the Hanukkahs since 1958, the Bank of Israel has made special holiday money to connect Jewish history with the modern world.)

And then there are sources who peg the practice to late 18th-century and early 19th-century Eastern Europe, when coins were given as payment to rabbis who traveled to small villages to teach Jews about Hanukkah. This at least puts the gelt in the hands of someone who might have called it by that name. It also links it with a population of Jewish European chocolate makers who produced confectionary coins wrapped in gold foil, much to the delight of children.

We gathered 13 kinds of gelt, mostly from Washington area shops and a few that are easily accessible online, to test which ones are worth both playing with and eating.

Marilyn Mueller, one of our three taste-test experts, said that the chocolate used to make much of the gelt has a reduced cocoa-butter content. That makes it easier to shape into coins and more shelf-stable (like some chocolate chips), but harder to melt on the tongue and less tasty. "If you don't get a pronounced chocolate flavor, it's not worth it," she said.

And, in the end, we agreed. Foil-covered coins with simple designs of Stars of David and Hanukkah menorahs, as well as those that resemble euros and Kennedy half-dollars, were initially appealing. But this is currency that's meant to be consumed. The perfect gelt should look good and taste good, too. We found a few that'll fill the bill.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company