It was 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday and I had already been on the phone with tech support for five hours trying to get wireless internet hooked up in my new apartment. Despairing that I would never again have email access at midnight and beaten down by incomprehensible lingo, I took deep breaths to quell frustration while intermittently intoning, “it’s time to make the doughnuts.” Hanukkah’s on the horizon, after all, and I had decided Sunday would be the day I’d try my hand at making sufganiyot, the jelly-filled treats that, for me, conjure up the eight-day celebration even more than latkes.
As a child and later, as a young woman, I lived in Jerusalem. I remember at Hanukkah time the sweet aroma of fresh doughnuts beckoned from nearly every downtown street corner. It was the one time of year I could imagine abandoning the glazed version, a favorite, for its oozing, interior-filled relative. I can still picture the intersection of King George and Jaffa Streets, where I descended from a bus on the way home from sculpture and Hebrew classes to savor those golden, sugary confections. Even after a week, their allure was hard to resist.
The exact origin of these doughnuts and their association with the Jewish tradition is uncertain. Leviticus makes reference to “unleavened cakes mingled with oil”; Joan Nathan tells of a Bukharan fable in which Adam and Eve partake of these delights after getting the boot from the Garden of Eden; and there is the obvious symbolism of oil-reliant food, since Hanukkah celebrates the miraculous single day’s worth of oil that kept a menorah lit for eight. But in Platonic terms, it’s simply fried dough—aka zeppoli or beignet or loukamades or, in this case, sufganiya.
Though I relish the idea of fresh doughnuts—the moist, soft sort that bear no resemblance to the heavy rings sold by a certain chain with a pink and orange logo—I was unsure of my ability to create them. Except for the time I stood watching over the shoulder of a friend’s father as he made doughnuts for New Year’s (a tradition from his childhood in Germany), this was to be a new undertaking for me. I tend to believe that the only way to avoid the hard-to-banish stink of fry is to never fry. But that was the least of my obstacles. There was my modest-sized kitchen (trust me, that’s a generous assessment), poorly lit, overly heated, and meagerly equipped. I’d only moved in two weeks earlier, and I had yet to plumb through boxes of kitchenware.
There was also the question of a ticking clock—an afternoon deadline, imposed by curtain time for a staging of Woyzeck. Meantime, the recipe I’d selected, from Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook, called for sticking the dough in the refrigerator overnight. In the true spirit of holiday procrastination, I had no nights left to spare and the afternoon stretch would have to suffice.
Then there was the unfortunate matter of the fridge. Mine was on the fritz—a turn I realized several days after moving in. The landlord had assured me a replacement was on its way, but in the meantime I’d have to improvise—the dough, I determined, would sit covered next to a wide open window. I was grateful cold weather had finally kicked in.
Getting even to that point was no small feat. My recipe instructed me to put the flour on a work surface, though it failed to specify—for dolts like me—whether that surface ought to be flat. I inferred yes, and was instructed then to “make a well” in the flour and pour a mixture of yeast, sugar, and water into it. Well, turns out I’m a mighty poor engineer and the walls of my well crumbled at the first touch of liquid. Next time—if there’s a next time—that well gets a moat whose runoff will be staunched by the outer perimeter of a mixing bowl. The liquid loss onto the countertop was impossible to measure, so I chose to assume it was insignificant and started to knead in, as per instructions, the other elements: egg yolks, butter, cinnamon, a pinch of salt.
At first sticky and tattered-looking, the mass gained coherence with each thrust of my palms and soon something magical—miraculous, even—happened: dough. It squeezed beneath the weight of my hands with the elasticity of Play-Doh and squished between my fingers without leaving any bits behind. The end of stage one had arrived. I set the dough, covered with plastic wrap, by the window changed my clothes, and headed out the door, where moments later I was confronted by the spectre of the Dunkin’ Donuts at the end of my street. It taunted me.
Six hours later, having had dinner and my fill of German social realism (the production turned out to be less Alban Berg than Kusturica meets Ionesco, with a dash of Memphis blues), I returned home to find my dough had risen by about one-third. Was that too little? Was it just right? Joan Nathan had said zilch about dough expansion. I did not know enough to be deterred. Donning an apron and a makeshift hair net (read: do-rag), I punched it down and rolled it out to a thickness of an eighth of an inch with a rolling pin I managed to excavate from a three-foot tall box in my bedroom. With a scotch tumbler—one of the few glasses I had put back in rotation after moving—I cut out circles from the sheet of dough and then rolled them into balls.
The next step was to fill a large pot with two inches of vegetable oil. I don’t have a Dutch oven or any kind of deep skillet, and instead used a large pot that more typically gets its exercise making spaghetti. When I had shopped earlier that day for ingredients, just after the joyous 10 a.m. resolution of my computer woes, there had been no vegetable oil in my supermarket and, ignorant of the subtleties of different oil types, I bought safflower, thinking the word sounds an awful lot like sunflower and further reasoning that sunflowers are some kind of legume, so all should be quite well. What’s more, according to the label it was good for high heat. I figured a 32-ounce bottle would be enough. How wrong I was—it didn’t even measure a single inch on a knife I had marked after lining it up next to a seamstress tape measure, and, as a full moon rose over Brooklyn, I dashed out to another store for a second 32 ouncer and a third smaller bottle, just to be safe.
Back at home, oil in pot, (still a few fractions shy of two inches but my fidelity to precision had long since wavered) I turned on the burner. Smoke began rising, ominously, from the edge of the appliance, far from the burner in use. Is this how it all ends, I wondered? It was my maiden voyage with this stove and I had no idea what to expect—how quickly it heats up, how hot it gets. The recipe said the oil should reach about 375 degrees, but though I’d bought a slotted spoon, in compliance with Nathan’s how-to, I’d been oblivious to the need for a special thermometer to gauge the oil. I knew not even what kind of thermometer to use and considered sticking in the one I use to check if I have a fever. Even to a fry naif, that seemed like a very bad idea, and as the oil began to ripple I knew I’d have to rely on instinct.
My sacrificial test doughnut was ready in about two minutes. I gave it 30 seconds on a paper towel to leach out extra oil and popped it into my mouth. It had all the flavor of an unadorned popover. Undeterred, I waited a few minutes to let the oil grow still hotter and sallied forth, submerging my creations five at a time. They turned a golden brown and jigged in the sizzle.
Twelve minutes later, I had two dozen slightly scrawny, knotted pastries, lacking specific centers and radiating absolutely no mouth-watering aroma. They looked nothing like the pristine, fluffy, round delights I picture when I think of sufganiyot. Was it the safflower oil? The bits of yeast lost from the flour well’s breakdown? Had I forgotten to add a second serving of sugar? Or maybe it was the lack of proper refrigeration?
There was still jam to insert—maybe it would redeem me. I had pooh-poohed the recipe’s suggestion of using an injector for the filling, opting to make a small incision and spoon in jam (raspberry, my own twist on the usual strawberry) the way Marcy Goldman advises in her holiday cookbook. Lastly, I bathed my doughnuts in confectioner’s sugar in an effort to reach epic heights of scrumptiousness.
By morning, sweet they were, but also, in my opinion, dense, a little stale, entirely unremarkable. Resisting them would be cake.
Makes 24 2-inch wide sufganiyot
2 scant tablespoons (2 packages) active dry yeast
4 tablespoons sugar, plus sugar for rolling
3/4 cup lukewarm water or milk
2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 large egg yolks
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter or pareve margarine, at room temp
Vegetable oil for deep-frying
1/2 cup plum, strawberry, or apricot jam
1. Sprinkle the yeast and 2 tablespoons of the sugar into the water or milk and stir to dissolve.
2. Place the flour on a work surface and make a well in the center. Add the yeast mixture, egg yolks, salt, cinnamon, butter, and the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar. Knead well, about 5 minutes, working the butter or margarine into the dough and kneading until the dough is elastic. You can also use a food proces-sor fitted with the steel blade to do this, processing about 2 minutes.
3. Put the dough in a greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it rise overnight in the refrigerator.
4. Sprinkle flour on the work surface. Roll out the dough to an 1/8-inch thick-ness. Using a 2-inch cookie cutter or floured drinking glass, cut out circles. Let the dough circles rise 15 minutes more.
5. With your hands, gently form the dough circles into balls.
6. Pour 2 inches of oil into a heavy pot and heat until very hot, about 375 degrees.
7. Slip the doughnuts into the oil, 4 or 5 at a time, using a slotted spoon. Turn them when brown, after a few minutes, to crisp on the other side. Drain on paper towels.
8. Using an injector available at cooking stores, inject a teaspoon of jam into each doughnut. Then roll all of them in granulated sugar and serve immediately. You can make larger sufganiyot if you like.
Reprinted from Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook, courtesy of Schocken.