In Israel you basically have two choices of donuts that you can purchase for Hanukkah. Your first choice are cheap-o shuk donuts covered in confectioners sugar and filled with jelly, chocolate or caramel cream. Costing as little as 5 for 10 shekels ($2.50) these are very boring and uninspired but they’ll do in a pinch. Your other choice are insanely fancy donuts from chi-chi bakeries like Roladin or English cake. These have all manner of fancy toppings like Belgian chocolate, Madascar Vanilla, Irish Cream as well as injectable chasers filled with sugary flavor accents or actual liquor – and these can cost as much as 10 shekels each.
Or, you can make your own like my Mom did! Mom was born in Casablanca and what Ashkenazi Jews do with potatoes (kugel, verenickes, latkes etc.), Moroccans do with dough. Witness the Sfenj – super easy to make using basic ingredients – a warm Sfenj is nothing short of magic, alchemically transcending its humble origins and rough exterior and providing the eater with a tummy full of yum that is both homey and exotic.
I decided to try and make Sfenj today for the first time ever and the results were great! Here’s the recipe – please try it, you won’t regret it!
1. 3 cups flour
2. 4 tablespoons warm water
3. Half a shot of Arak
4. 1 teaspoon salt
5. 2 tablespoons of sugar
6. 1 tablespoon dried active yeast
7. 1 1/4 cup warm water
8. Vegetable oil, for frying
9. Sugar, for garnish (optional)
1. Make the yeast starter by dissolving 2 tablespoons of sugar in 4 tablespoons of warm water in a small bowl. Stir in 1 tablespoon of dried active yeast. Let it sit for 15 minutes.
2. Mix the flour and 1 teaspoon of salt in a large bowl. Add the remaining water, Arak and yeast mixture, and stir vigorously with your hand or a spoon until smooth for about 10-15 minutes. The dough should be too sticky to knead or shape, almost like a batter. Don’t add salt to the yeast starter – it’ll inhibit the dough from rising. The Alcohol in the Arak keeps the Sfenj from absorbing too much oil when it’s being fried. You can use any alcoholic beverage but Arak makes the Sfenj taste more like Morocco.
3. Oil a mixing bowl lightly. Oil your hands and push dough down into the center of the original bowl with oiled hands until you can easily pick it up and transfer to the oiled bowl. Wipe any dough that might stick to your hands, dip fingers in oil again, and turn dough over in bowl. Then cover with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap, and allow to rise 3-4 hours.
4. When dough is risen, punch it down in bowl with your fist. In a wide pot, heat an inch or more of vegetable oil until hot. You need about an inch of oil.
5. Dip your hands in water, and pull off a piece of dough about the size of a an egg. Use your fingers to make a hole in the ball of dough, stretch the hole wide to make a ring about the size of a golf ball, and place the dough in the hot oil. The dough will puff up.
6. Repeat with the remaining dough, wetting your hands as necessary to keep the dough from sticking as you work with it.
7. Fry the sfenj until golden brown, turning once or twice. Remove the cooked sfenj with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with paper towels to drain.
8. Serve the sfenj hot. If desired, dip the sfenj in sugar or drizzle honey to sweeten them.
I did say “if desired” but really, you’d be well advised to sweeten it. We always use sugar and for bonus points, serve it with Moroccan mint tea (Chinese gunpowder tea, fresh mint leaves and lots of sugar). Make this for your friends and family if you love them. You can also cover the Sfenj in honey. It’s not traditional but I tried it and it was pretty darn yummy.