This week, 196 flavors is dissipating the winter darkness and bringing light into your homes. Yes, we are about to celebrate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.
In the Hebrew calendar, Hanukkah (Festival of the Inauguration in Hebrew) begins the evening of 25 Kislev, a month which generally corresponds to December in the civil calendar. This year, we will celebrate Hanukkah from December 16 to 24.
Hanukkah is the symbol of the bright lights at the time of the winter solstice, and in Jewish consciousness, it represents the victory of light over darkness. The first day of Hanukkah is also the day when the night is the longest of the year. Does it sound dark to you? Come with us for more enlightenment with a little history!
Hanukkah commemorates the reconquest of the Temple of Jerusalem (Beit HaMikdash). Indeed, after the split of the empire of Alexander the Great at the time of the Second Temple, the Greek army of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Greco-Syrian occupant, invaded the land of Israel.
The Greeks persecuted the Jews by prohibiting them to study Torah and do good deeds (mitzvot) by risking death penalty. The Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed and desecrated. Brave Kohanim (Kohen dynasty), the Hasmoneans, did not surrender and rebelled against the invader.
Thanks to the high priest Mattathias and his son, the Hasmoneans managed to defeat an enemy highly superior in number and equipment. This was the first miracle because they finally won a miraculous victory against this very powerful Greek army on the 25th of Kislev, it was in the year 164 before the common era.
The seven-branched candelabra of the Hebrews (menorah) was one of the vessels of the Temple of Jerusalem and it had to stay there permanently. Note that the candelabra is a specifically biblical emblem, now the symbol of the State of Israel.
The first miracle (ness in Hebrew) was followed by a second one: after this victory, at the inauguration of the Temple, pure oil was used to light the candelabra and eight days were needed to make a new oil.
The Kohanim searched the Temple from top to bottom and found only a small cruse of oil whose content could only be used to light the candelabra one day. They decided to light it anyway and this is when the second miracle happened: the oil burned for eight days!
To celebrate these miracles, we light a candle each day of the holiday, for a total of 8 candles. Lighting the candles is accompanied by prayers and is done on a 9-branch candelabra, the 9th candle is used to light the other eight.
Hanukkah is also a time of celebrations and gatherings. It is customary to distribute gifts, tops, and coins to children. In reference to the miracle of the oil, we also enjoy beignets!
I was born in Fez, Morocco, and this is where I grew up. It was in Morocco that I received all my Hanukkah gifts. I also have sweet and nostalgic thoughts for my two generous grandfathers, Yaacov and Yair, who contributed to making this Holiday of Enlightenment a magical one for all the children of the family. It is also in Morocco and I tasted and prepared my first beignets. We call them sfenj and that’s obviously what I chose to prepare today!
I still see myself helping the sweet attendant of our primary school, Aziza, prepare sfenj. I also remember her terrified at the idea that I get burnt by the oil!
The recipe that I propose today comes from the beignet shop or moul l’sfenj of the neighborhood where I grew up in Fez.
Indeed, during my last visit to Fez, 3 years ago, I asked the recipe to the beignet maker who tirelessly fries donuts from dawn until dusk. He not only generously gave me the recipe but also shared all his secrets.
Hanukkah or not, one cannot talk about Morocco without mentioning its quintessential sfenj. It is an institution in the country.
Sfenj is an Arabic word which means “sponge”. A name that they certainly owe to their inner spongy, soft, and airy texture even though they are crisp on the outside.
Sfenj is basically made with beignet (or donut) dough which is salty and where the small dose of sugar is only merely used to dissolve the yeast. Everyone is free to sprinkle sugar or drizzle their sfenj with warm honey.
For a successful sfenj with a perfect texture, kneading is essential! It must be very long and energetic. If you have a stand mixer or a bread machine, do not hesitate to use it, you will get a magnificent dough!
The rising of the dough is also very important. It must be sufficiently long so that the dough is nice and airy. If it is not, it means that the kneading was not long enough and energetic or that the dough did not rise enough.
As I mentioned in my post on the Tanzanian donuts called mandazi, there is not one country in the world that doesn’t have a recipe for fritters. But as far as I am concerned, and no offense to anyone, there is no country in the world that could dethrone Morocco and the sfenj of my childhood!
Happy Hanukkah to all! Let the light be with you!
- 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 of water.
- In the bowl of the 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.