First you learn how much chef Meny Vaknin loves his grandmother. Later you swoon over the mouthful of memories he has prepared for you. Like all delicious nostalgia, he has elevated and refined the rustic treat known as sfenj, adjusting the flavors and improving the rise. He affectionately deemed the finished product “a little ugly,” which suddenly took on the meaning of “homey” and praiseworthy.
Sfenj — from the Arabic for “sponge” — is a Moroccan confection similar to a beignet and served at Chanukah, Maimouna (the feast held at Passover’s end), and “whenever there’s a celebratory thing like a bar mitzvah or a bris that requires food,” according to Vaknin, owner of the new Marcel’s Bakery and Café and the popular Mishmish Café, both in Montclair.
Usually made from flour, water, yeast, and salt, sfenj dough can be sweetened with sugar or left savory. Vaknin likes to add a little baking powder to the basic recipe. Although it must be left to rise, the dough is not kneaded, and the result is a lighter pastry than American doughnuts, whose dough is kneaded about five minutes; Israeli sufganiyot need to be kneaded for at least 10 minutes.
By the time this reporter arrives at Marcel’s, the dough — airy, delicate, and sticky — had been mixed and proofed twice. Vaknin keeps a small bowl of water nearby to dip his fingers before touching the dough, and recalls that his safta, his grandmother Channa, uses oil to moisten her fingers. The deep fryer has been filled with canola oil and heated (home cooks can use a large pot). He scoops a handful of dough from the edge so as not to disturb the air pockets more than necessary, then inserts his fingers through the middle to create a hole, gently catching the side he is not holding with the other hand, and places it into the fryer.
The secret to successful sfenj is what happens next: Vaknin continuously spoons hot oil over the top of the pastries. “It makes it ‘poof,’” he says, as the tops just barely perceptibly take on air. After a few minutes, he turns the dough over, but never stops drizzling the oil in short, quick movements. “That’s why these are also very greasy — but not in a bad way,” claims Vaknin, but adds, “They are not a low-calorie dish.” Especially eaten the way he did as a child: with butter smeared on top, along with sugar and honey.
The frying is a labor-intensive process. “You have to be in the zone to make those; there’s no rush,” he said. And as he adds dough to the fryer, he is mesmerized. “I like to get lost in the frying.”
When they are finally finished, the chef places the sfenj on a tray and gives them a dusting of confectioners’ sugar. He moves them to a plate and drizzles honey on top. He looks at them for a few minutes, and takes a bite. He offers a boyish grin, changes his posture, and for a moment he is somewhere else.
Then he gives samples. Fresh from the fryer, they are light and sweet, just crunchy on the outside, moist and fluffy inside. They are somehow dense but not heavy. And he utters his truth. Despite all his training and technique, “I still like my grandmother’s better.”