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When anyone and their mothers think of Chanukah, they think of the jelly doughnut or “sufganiyah”—not sfenj, its humbler cousin. That or the potato latke or perhaps the smell of overused oil that has seeped into the wallpaper of their insufficiently ventilated kitchens of their childhood homes.
The massive German Shepherd that I grew up with in Pittsburgh would reek of burnt oil for weeks after Chanukah. She would play in our backyard trudging through snow for hours and then come into the house around dinnertime when my mother was cooking hundreds of latkes. The oil would seep into her wet fur and there it was: an even more potent version of wet dog smell.
The reason that we get to celebrate food fried in oil is to commemorate the Jewish Maccabees defending themselves against the Greek Assyrians in what could have been yet another end to the Jewish people in Israel. The oil that was sufficient to burn for a day lasted for eight and the Temple remained illuminated—hence, the Chanukah saying “festival of lights.” In the end, the Maccabees prevailed and now we all get to eat fried everything and feel like we are being observant of something other than extreme indulgence.
Fried, yeasted sfenj are substantially easier to make than sufganiyot (the plural of sufganiyah), which was actually a reason that they lost popularity in the earlier days of pre-independence Israel. The Israeli National Labor Union that formed in the 1920s under the British Mandate pushed to make the jelly doughnut the symbolic food of Chanukah because, unlike sfenj or even the potato pancake, the sufganiyah needed to be made by paid professionals, which meant more jobs for Jewish workers.
Now this seems silly, but consider that there are nearly 20 million sufganiyot eaten in Israel during the eight days of Chanukah in a country of only 7 million. In fact, more Israelis eat sufganiyot during Chanukah than fast on Yom Kippur, which is Judaism’s most holy day. The Histadrut (Israeli Labor Union) made sure that the sufagniyah out-marketed the sfenj.
You will find sfenj throughout the Middle East but especially in Morocco, Algiers, Tunisia, and Libya and especially for breakfast (usually a version with less sugar) or hung on palm fronds around the covered markets. The word “sfenj” comes from the Arabic word “isfejen,” which means “sponge”: The relatively neutral dough takes very well to heaping drizzles of honey or sugar and a glass of piping-hot mint tea on the side.
Making sfenj at home is tremendously easy and requires few ingredients. This is always a good sign for your prep time but perhaps a bit daunting, as fewer ingredients can often mean greater emphasis on technique (sfenj are typically made with no milk, fat, or eggs). A hot pot of bubbling oil can also be intimidating. However, I impress upon you to be brave—and to remember that frying these delicious sfenj will not be as hard as fighting off an angry Assyrian army while out-numbered. Also be sure that any large shaggy animals are at a safe distance from your stove.
Because sfenj is a neutral dough, the flavor impact with your finished doughnut will come largely from the garnishing syrups or sugars. A good quality honey drizzle will go a very long way. As will a simple sugar syrup that has been infused with cool ingredients like saffron, rose, or orange blossom water, and even a few pinches of cayenne. Be careful to not over-do it, and remember that some honeys can be on the spicy side. Also make sure that your sugar syrup is saturated—at least 2 to 1 sugar to water. Otherwise, you will end up with a limp sfenj.
And let me tell you, nothing ruins a holiday that celebrates a festival of lights like a limp sfenj.
- 1 tablespoon dry active yeast
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 4 tablespoons plus 3/4 cup warm water
- 2 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour
- Zest from 1 orange
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 cups canola oil
- 1 cup honey
- 1/2 cup ground pistachios
Michael Solomonov is the owner of Zahav and the author of a book with the same name.