The sfenj (السفنج), crispy on the outside and soft and airy on the inside, is the most addictive and popular donut in Morocco.
What is a sfenj?
Sfenj is an Arabic word meaning “sponge”, a name that we most certainly owe to its spongy, fluffy, and airy texture inside, and its crispy outside.
A sfenj is basically a donut with a slightly savory dough and where the small dose of sugar only serves to dilute the yeast. Then everyone is free to sprinkle sugar on top or to coat it with hot honey.
To make perfect sfenj, with the perfect crumb texture, kneading is key. The kneading must be very long and energetic. The use of a stand mixer is highly recommended for this recipe.
The rising is also very important. It must be long enough so that the dough is airy. If this is not the case, it means that the kneading was not long and energetic enough or that the dough did not rise enough.
In addition to the classic sfenj, there are two other varieties:
- The sfenj matifiyya (السفنج المطفية), a flat sfenj that is fried 2 times.
- The sfenj matifiyya bil-baydh (السفنجة المطفية بالبيض), a sfenj matifiyya with an egg added on it before the second frying.
What is the origin of the sfenj?
The sfenj originates from Al-Andalus, which is also called Islamic Spain, and which includes all the territories of the Iberian Peninsula and some of the south of France, which were, at one time, under Muslim domination between 711 (first landing) and 1492 (fall of Granada).
However, it should be noted that present-day Andalusia was only a small part of this Islamic Spain for a long time.
According to a legend, sfenj was born from the mistake of a baker who accidentally dropped a ball of bread dough into a pan of boiling oil. At the time, its name was isfandj.
The sfenj is an important part of Andalusian culture and its role was perfectly summed up in the 12th century, by a poet who loved these little donuts and who claimed: “The bakers of sfenj are worth as much as kings” (“سفاجين تحسبهم ملوكا”). A royal recipe with ingredients yet so simple.
It is not known exactly how sfenj first established itself in the Maghreb. However, numerous writings prove that sfenj was already very well known during the Marinid dynasty.
The Marinids are a famous dynasty of Zenata Berber origin who reigned in Morocco, which was called Maghreb Al-Aqsa at the time, between the 13th and 15th centuries, and which controlled, episodically, other parts of the Maghreb and the Iberian Peninsula during the 14th century. The Zenata were communities of Berber tribes who, in ancient times, lived in an area stretching from western Egypt to Morocco.
Sfenj in the Maghreb
Although sfenj is native to Al-Andalus, most of the bakers and sellers of sfenj in the Maghreb are traditionally Amazigh (Berbers), an ethnic group from several nations, mainly indigenous, from North Africa and certain parts from northern West Africa.
The Berbers live mainly in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, northern Mali, northern Niger and in a small part of western Egypt. It is therefore believed that the nomadic Amazighs also helped to spread sfenj throughout the Maghreb.
Traditionally prepared extremely early in the morning and sold for breakfast or at the end of the afternoon, it is very often accompanied by a mint tea and much more rarely by a coffee. Sfenj are traditionally sold tied with a palm leaf.
Bakers exclusively dedicated to sfenjs are called sufnāj (سفناج). They are established throughout the Maghreb, which attests to the popularity of this donut. The sufnājeen (plural of sufnāj) became emblematic figures of the social life of North African neighborhoods, because they interacted with almost all the families of their community each morning.
From the beginning of the 13th century, sufnāj was considered to be a respectable career. In a traditional sfenj bakery, the sufnāj sits on a raised platform, above the rest of the bakery, which itself is already raised one meter above the ground. Opposite the sufnāj is a huge circular fryer.
A crowd of customers surrounds this platform and they are all trying to get the sufnāj’s attention in order to place orders by raising their hand to him in a way reminiscent of the Nazi salute and cries. For this reason, for many years, the sufnājeen were often nicknamed “Hitler”.
The sfenj is called sfendje or khfaf in Algeria, bambaloni or bambalouni in Tunisia, and sfinz in Libya.
Sfenj in Israel
Originally from the Maghreb, sfenj is very popular among Moroccan Jews and other Sephardic communities in Israel and elsewhere, especially during Hanukkah.
Along with mofletta, the majority of Moroccan Jews around the world prepare sfenjs on the evening of Mimouna, a holiday that marks the end of Passover.
Sfenj entered Israeli culture long before 1948, when Moroccan Jews took it with them during their immigration to British Mandatory Palestine.
In Israel, sfenj was becoming very popular until the late 1920s, when Histadrut, the main union of Israeli workers, pushed people to make sufganiyah, the most traditional Hanukkah donut.
A soufganiyah (סופגניה), soufganiyoth (סופגניות) in the plural form, is a flattened spherical donut, which is first fried, then pierced and filled with jam, marmalade or pastry cream, before being sprinkled with icing sugar. A soufganiyah can be eaten hot or cold.
The Histadrut wanted the soufganiyoth to supplant the sfenj in order to guarantee jobs to the Jewish bakers. The Histadrut’s efforts were successful. Indeed, in 2016, 7 million Jews in Israel enjoyed 20 million soufganiyoth.
However, in the majority of Israeli shouks (markets), there is often a stand that sells sfenj, with all sharing the same recipe but not necessarily the same shape.
The Tunisians will call them bambaloni, the Libyans will call them sfinz, and the Moroccans sfenj.
Soufganiyoth, sfenj and other donuts, such as lokma (or luqmat al-qadi), yoyos, or Berliner, are prepared for Hanukkah precisely because they are fried in oil, commemorating the miracle of Hanukkah where the oil that was supposed to light a flame in the Temple in Jerusalem for one day lasted eight days.
- 4 cups flour
- 1½ teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 3 teaspoons instant yeast
- 1¼ cup warm water
- ½ cup water (to dissolve the yeast)
- Vegetable oil (for frying)
Dissolve the yeast and sugar in ½ cup (120ml) of water.
In the bowl of the stand mixer, combine all the ingredients except salt.
- At low speed, gradually add water until reaching the consistency of a sticky dough.
- Stir in salt and mix at higher speed.
- Knead for 10 minutes. The dough should be very sticky.
- Let the dough rest, covered and at room temperature for at least 3 hours.
- Have a large bowl of cold water handy to shape donuts. The hands should be wet to form each donut.
- Take balls of dough the size of an egg.
- Make a hole in the center and deep fry in hot oil.
- Turn over so that both sides are golden, about 2 to 3 minutes per side.
- Serve with sugar or hot honey.