For Jews of the diaspora, there is a shared history, scripture, and laws that unify us. However, due to geographic differences, there are distinctions among Jews in diet, language, dress, and customs. Many of these differences are most notable in our culinary cultures.
Ashkenazi foods, like brisket and kugel, are staples of the cold regions where Ashkenazi Jews settled throughout Europe. To survive a Russian or Polish winter, one needed heavy comfort foods that included potatoes, root vegetables, noodles, meat, and pickled foods. On the other hand, Sephardic Jews, after being expelled from the Iberian Peninsula, tended to settle in the warm climates of the Mediterranean. As such, they had access to fresh vegetables, fish, fruits, spices, and olive oil. Therefore, Sephardic cuisine tends to be light, healthy, colorful, and perceived as exotic compared to the Ashkenazi palate.
Many traditional dishes can be found in both Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions, with slight variations. For example, chamin, the Sephardic stew, is akin to cholent, an Ashkenazi tradition — both dishes evolved to not violate the prohibition against cooking on Shabbat; the stews cook from sundown Friday night until the time of Shabbat lunch. While they contain the same basic ingredients (beans and meat), they are spiced and prepared in a unique way so that each stew has a distinct flavor.
The same similarities and differences can be found in the luscious fried desserts that we serve at Chanukah time. Eating fried foods is one of the distinct pleasures of the holiday. While oil-laden delicacies serve as a tribute to the Temple oil that miraculously lasted for eight days, there is a Jewish folktale that says that after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, God tried to cheer them up by giving them jelly doughnuts (in Hebrew, sufganiyot). There is no scriptural basis for this, but it is a cute way to talk about our obsession with these treats.
Ashkenazim bring latkes to the table (literally), the Israelis have perfected donuts called sufganiyot (from the Greek word sufan, meaning “fried”), and Sephardic Jews enjoy fried bimuelos (a Ladino derivation of the Spanish word for fritters, buneolos). Since cultural cross-over is the rage (think fusion cuisine), we can all enjoy these treats wherever we live (and during any time of the year). Below are my favorite recipes for simple sufganiyot and bueno bimuelos. Enjoy!
BIMUELOS WITH ORANGE HONEY SAUCE
1 cup honey (I prefer acacia honey)
3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp. vegetable or canola oil, plus more for frying
1 Tbsp. active dry yeast
1 ½ cups warm water, divided
1/3 cup orange juice (fresh squeezed is preferable)
1 tsp. finely grated orange zest
¾ tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. sugar
Combine flour, 1 Tbsp. sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Put aside.
Pour ½ cup water into a large bowl. Add sugar and yeast over water and wait until mixture become foamy, about 10 minutes.
Add flour mixture, remaining water, 3 Tbsp.
orange juice, orange zest, and 2 Tbsp. oil to yeast mixture; stir to combine, about 30 seconds.
Knead dough with your hands until smooth (about 2 minutes), adding 1 Tbsp. of additional flour at a time to reduce stickiness.
Place dough in a clean, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rest until dough has doubled in volume, about 1 to 1 ½ hours.
Heat approximately 4 inches of oil in a tall pot to about 350-360 F (very hot but not smoking). Lightly oil hands, form dough into walnut-sized balls, and drop into oil in batches. Fry until golden brown on both sides, about 3-4 minutes total.
Remove bimuelos with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
Place honey and remaining orange juice in a small saucepan and simmer 3-4 minutes until warm. Drizzle honey over doughnuts and serve.
Adapted from “The World of Jewish Desserts” by Gil Marks (Simon & Schuster, 2000).
SIMPLE ISRAELI SUFGANIYOT
For the dough:
3½ cups flour
½ tsp. salt
¼ cup sugar
1 Tbsp. dry instant yeast
3½ Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1 ¼ cup lukewarm milk
For the filling:
½ cup strawberry or raspberry jam, Nutella, vanilla pudding, chocolate ganache, or custard
1 liter canola oil
Sift flour into a large mixing bowl. Add the salt and sugar; mix well. Add the yeast and mix.
Using a hook attachment on a hand or stand mixer, combine, at low speed, the flour mixture with the egg and the butter. Gradually add the warm milk and continue mixing for 8-10 minutes until the dough is soft.
Make the dough into a ball and place it in a clean, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rise until doubled in size, for about 1½ -2 hours.
Once the dough has risen, place dough on a lightly floured work surface and using a rolling pin, roll the dough out to ¾-inch thickness.
Using a 2-inch cookie cutter, cut circles out of the dough.
Place the dough circles on a baking tray lined with parchment paper and cover with a clean kitchen towel. Allow to rise again for 20 minutes.
In the meantime, heat the oil in a deep-frying pot or fryolater until it reaches 350 F.
Place four dough circles into the oil and fry for 2-3 minutes on each side, until golden brown, but not too brown.
Remove with a slotted spoon and place on a plate lined with paper towels. Repeat with remaining dough. Allow to cool slightly before filling.
To fill the sufganiyot:
Fill a piping bag with desired filling. Using a sharp knife, make a small slit on the top the sufganiyot. Place the piping bag inside the slit and fill until you can see the filling on top.
Sprinkle with powdered sugar before serving.