A soft, warm, freshly fried doughnut, with strawberry jelly oozing out the center after you take the first bite. The epitome of Chanukah desserts? Sure, if you’re Ashkenazi.
But for many Jews, the eight days of light involve more exotic confections — bamieh, orejas, churros or kookoos.
“The truth is, jelly doughnuts are very much an Ashkenazi creation, which is great. Same as hamentaschen for Purim — all of these are gifts from the Ashkenazim to the world,” says Reyna Simnegar, author of “Persian Food from the Non-Persian Bride.” She filled her book, which was published earlier this year, with tips and tricks she discovered when learning to cook Sephardic food after marrying an Iranian man.
Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Simnegar discovered at age 12 that her ancestors were maranos — or hidden Jews — who concealed their Jewish heritage during the Spanish Inquisition. At age 15, she decided to convert to Judaism. Today, with a Persian husband and a Latin American background, Simnegar brings all sorts of culinary excitement to her family’s Chanukah celebrations.
“On Chanukah I always try to make something fried,” she says. Persians, she added, do have a version of the sufganiyah, or doughnut, called pidashki, but it is filled with cream, never jelly. “I make it on Chanukah because it’s fried and because it’s delicious,” says Simnegar, though it is not specifically designed for the holiday.
“Persians in general, whenever they want to celebrate something, they make halvah,” she says. “They really make halvah all year round for desserts for special occasions; they have different flavors — carrot halvah and date halvah and all kinds of different halvah.”
But in the spirit of the holiday, Simnegar makes a variety of fried dishes, including bamieh, “a fried pastry dipped into syrup.”
Borrowing from her own Venezuelan heritage, Simnegar — who is currently working on a South American cookbook — likes to make traditional fried dishes like churros or orejas.
“Those are the things I make on Chanukah from my background because they’re both fried and they’re so good,” she said.
Churros are “something I really miss from my childhood so I always love to make them,” said Simnegar. “My friends say, ‘Whatever night of Chanukah you’re making churros, please invite me over!’”
According to “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” by Gil Marks, many Sephardic communities have their own fried treats for the holiday. Moroccan and Egyptian Jews make zangula, which is similar to a funnel cake, Turkish Jews make burmuelos, fritters bathed in honey, and the Bene Israel in India prepare a milk-based fried pastry called gulab jamun, that is fried and dunked in a sugar syrup flavored with cardamom and saffron. Egyptian, Lebanese and Syrian Jews make zalabia, a similar deep-fried confection, and Greek Jews serve loukoumas.
If you do not have a frying thermometer, test the oil with a small piece of dough. If the ball of dough rises to the top when dropped in the oil, the oil is ready.
1 cup water
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted margarine or butter
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup flour
¼ cup rose water
1 cup honey
½ teaspoon saffron
½ teaspoon cardamom
4 cups canola oil for frying
In a small nonstick saucepan, bring water, margarine, and salt to a boil. Add the cup of flour, all at once, mixing rapidly. Reduce the heat to medium and keep on mixing until a ball of dough that detaches easily from the pot forms. Set aside and let cool for at least 10 minutes.
In the meantime, make the syrup, mixing all ingredients in a plastic bowl; microwave for one minute. Pour prepared syrup into a large bowl.
Transfer cooled dough to a stand mixer fitted with a flat paddle attachment. Add the eggs, one by one, making sure each egg is completely incorporated into the dough before adding the next.
Transfer the dough to a pastry bag fitted with a medium star pastry tip.
In a 4-quart saucepan, heat the oil until it reaches a temperature of 350°F. Drop in a 1-inch size strip of dough, squeezing the pastry bag and cutting the dough with kitchen scissors as it comes out of the tip. Fry until the dough is golden and puffed.
Scoop the bamieh out of the oil and place into a strainer to cool.
When balls have cooled, transfer them to the bowl of cold syrup. Soak the bamieh in the syrup for about 3 minutes.
Working with warm dough will also help prevent oil absorption. Shaping this dough with a star tip is a must because it allows for expansion while frying. It is imperative to dust the churros with sugar the second they are out of the fryer; this is the only way to get the sugar to stick to them.
Enough oil for frying
Enough sugar for coating
1 ½ cups water
½ teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups flour
Heat enough oil for frying in a 5-quart saucepan until it reaches a temperature of 375 F. Put the sugar in a flat container for coating.
In a small saucepan bring the water, sugar and salt to a boil. Remove from heat and add the flour all at once, stirring with a wooden spoon until the mixture forms into a smooth ball that pulls away from the pan sides.
While still warm, transfer dough to a pastry bag fitted with a medium star tip.
Pipe long strands of dough (as large as the saucepan allows — cutting with kitchen scissors to fit) and fry, turning occasionally, until golden.
Remove from the oil and immediately swirl in the sugar until fully coated. Serve warm or at room temperature with hot chocolate and arequipe (dulce de leche) for dipping.