It's Hanukkah, Christmas' less sexy Jewish cousin! They've got the decorated trees, the beautiful music, the mass cultural dominance. Luckily, we have a couple of things going in our favor as well: the pretty candles, the best song ever written, and lots and lots of fried food! I'm actually amazed that we haven't achieved more mass cultural dominance, considering our mass culture's love of fried food. Chief among these are latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts). I was invited to a Hanukkah dinner featuring a lot of really heavy Ashkenazic-type food, including of course latkes, and as resident baker I got commissioned to make sufganiyot! I just picked a recipe at random off the Internet and only later realized that it was by Joan Nathan, something of a doyenne in the world of Jewish cooking. I was glad it had that extra credibility because I'd never made donuts before and I was kind of nervous.
It didn't start out well. I'm almost as afraid of yeast as I am of dropping things in hot hot oil and having it spatter everywhere, so I knew donuts were going to be a challenge. I didn't really let the milk get sufficiently lukewarm before I yeasted it up, and I think I killed the yeast. So I dumped in another packet and let that bubble. By this point it was already 12:30 a.m., way past my bedtime (I'm a lame college student, I know). The rest of it went fine - really sticky dough before the butter was added, but that's to be expected - and I stuck it in the fridge.
The next morning I took it out and let it rise on the counter for a couple of hours, and I was glad that I did because it hadn't risen much in the fridge. I felt it was the yeast getting its revenge on me for killing its pals. The dough was very easy to roll out and cut, although I found that you only need one egg white to seal the donuts, so if you're using a fresh egg as I was instead of the whites left over from the yolks, keep that in mind. I let them rise for closer to 45 minutes but that's mostly because I got caught up in watching 30 Rock.
Then came The Frying. This was extremely scary for me - I still have little burns up and down my arms from when I deep-fried banana fritters when I was eighteen. I was very apprehensive about getting the right temperature, since I don't have a thermometer. I had to eyeball it, but I was helped along mightily by our smoke detector, which beeped its hellish beep as it informed me in its calm voice, "Fire. There is a fire." (This was the second time this had happened in 24 hours. The night before, I was simultaneously cooking rice and beans without the vent on, using a blowtorch for creme brulee - more on that later - and burning my Hanukkah candles. The smoke detector was not amused.) Anyway, I had to keep Ole Smokey happy so I didn't let the oil get too hot and I'm glad. The first two donuts I made were very dark, not burnt beyond repair but not donut color either. The rest were more successful. The tip I would offer those who are making these with a spatula is to flip the donuts over onto the spatula before you drop them in the oil, so that the flatter side is facing up. That way, when you flip them back into the oil the flatter side will be facing down, and it will be easier to pick it up with your spatula and turn it to the other side.
And how did my first foray into donut making actually taste? Well, not exactly like donuts. I'm pretty sure that the yeast continued to exact its yeasty revenge on me by not rising enough so it was denser than I would have liked but hey, c'est la vie. It still tasted very good, like a big solid funnel cake with raspberry jam inside! I don't think that I would make donuts just for a random occasion because I found them sort of stressful, but I'd definitely make them for Hanukkah next year, smoke detectors be damned.
Sufganiyot Recipe, adapted from Joan Nathan's The Children's Jewish Holiday Kitchen