The 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 donut 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.
When making sfenj at home, you will find that they are tremendously easy to make and require very 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 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.
You will also find that because sfenj is a neutral dough, the flavor impact with your finished donut 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 super cool ingredients like saffron, rose or orange blossom water, and even a few pinches of cayenne. Be careful to not over-do it with the piquant—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. —Michael Solomonov
Dissolve the yeast and sugar in a medium-sized bowl with the 4 tablespoons of warm water. Let the yeast starter stand for approximately 15 minutes until it is frothy and blooming so the yeast starter doubles in size.
Sift the flour into a large mixing bowl, then add the orange zest and salt. Make a small well in the middle of the flour and pour the yeast starter into the well. Incorporate the yeast mixture by making a swirling motion with your fingers in the middle of the well, while slowly streaming in the remaining ¾ cup of warm water. Knead the mixture inside of the bowl with palm of your hands for approximately 15 minutes until the dough is very smooth. Cover with a clean towel and set aside in a warm place to rise until it’s roughly double in size, approximately 1 hour.
When the dough has almost finished rising, fill a large pot with the canola oil and heat until it reaches 350ºF on a thermometer. With wet hands, lightly punch down the dough to deflate. Pull off a piece of donut batter that is approximately the size of a small egg. Use your thumb to make a hole in the center of the piece of batter. Open the hole with your fingers to form a donut that is approximately 4 inches in diameter. Drop the donut away from you into the pot. Be careful not to crowd the pot (three donuts at a time is about right). Fry the donuts for 2 minutes on one side, then flip and finish cooking on the other side for 1 ½ minutes.
Remove the donuts to a cooling rack lined with paper towels to drain. Cool for approximately 4 minutes and then drizzle each donut with honey, sprinkle with pistachios. Serve immediately, preferably with hot mint tea.