Sfinge: A Must-Try Moroccan Treat

Chanukah has arrived! The Festival of Lights is observed by Jews all over the world. The holiday not only celebrates the miracle of one tiny jar of temple oil lasting eight days, but also the determination of our ancestors to fight for their independence from the Greek Empire. It is the ultimate manifestation of the partnership between mankind and the miraculous. As a result, it resonates deeply with modern Israelis, many of whom see the reconstitution of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel as a modern day miracle in the same vein as the story of the Maccabees.

As with all Jewish holidays, Chanukah traditions are packed full of symbolism. We play with Sevivonim, or Dreidels, a call back to the game that Jewish children played to hide their Torah study from nearby Greek soldiers. We light a Chaukiah, a menorah with eight branches, adding another candle each night to remind us that each day, we should strive to bring a little more light to the world. Most importantly, we eat foods fried in oil to remind us of the miracle of the oil.

While Jelly Doughnuts and Latkes, in Hebrew Sufganiyot and Levivot, respectively, are still the artery-cloggers of choice for most, I prefer Sfinge, a light, fritter-like Moroccan fried-dough that is both delicious, easy to make, and reminds me of my Moroccan heritage!

Shout out to Christine Benlafquih over at theSpruceEats.com for this recipe which has been my go-to for the last few years!

Ingredients

  • 2 teaspoons yeast
  • 1 1/4 cups warm water (divided)
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • Optional: Granulated sugar or powdered sugar

Instructions

  1. In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in 1/4 cup warm water and set aside to proof for 10 or 15 minutes.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the flour with the salt and 1 cup warm water. Add the yeast mixture and stir vigorously with your hand or a heavy wooden spoon until smooth. The dough should be too sticky to knead or shape, almost like a thick batter.
  3. Cover the bowl with a towel and leave the dough to rise for 3 to 4 hours, until double or triple in bulk.
  4. In a wide, deep pot, heat 2 to 3 inches of vegetable oil over medium heat until hot.
  5. Set out a bowl of water. Dip your hands in the water, then pull off a piece of dough about the size of a small plum. Use your fingers to make a hole in the ball of dough, stretch the hole wide to make a ring, and place the dough in the hot oil.
  6. Repeat with additional portions of dough, until you’ve added as many sfenj as will fit comfortably in your pot; do not overcrowd. Wet your hands as necessary to keep the dough from sticking as you work with it.
  7. Fry the sfenj until golden brown, turning once or twice. Remove the cooked sfenj to a plate lined with paper towels to drain.
  8. Repeat shaping and frying until you’ve used up all the dough.
  9. If desired, finish the hot sfenj by dipping in granulated sugar or by dusting with powdered sugar.
  10. Serve the sfenj hot or warm; they lose their texture and appeal when cold. Sfenj will not stay fresh very long at room temperature; it’s best to freeze leftover sfenj and then reheat in the oven when needed.

This recipe should yield between 8-10 sfinge, although one year I managed to get 15.

Me, a Nice Jewish Boy, the year my Sfinge recipe yielded 15 servings instead of 10; my own little Chanukah miracle 🙂

Sfinge is a great way to introduce a new tradition into your Chanukah celebration and is sure to spread a little extra light at any Chanukah party, especially when it’s topped with powdered sugar!

Chag Chanukah Sameach!

A Home for the Holidays

I. Cleaning

Of the many things I have looked forward to in Israel, spending the holidays with my family has been among the most anticipated. The last time I was home for the holidays was 2001. I was six and honestly, I can’t remember anything. As a result, I committed to making Aliyah before Rosh Hashanah, 5780, the turn of the Jewish New Year.

In the week leading up to the holiday, my Abba, brother, and I went to my grandparents’ house in the neighborhood of Canaan in Tzfat to clean. In a few days, fifteen people would descend onto this house to celebrate together. In the synagogue above the house, “Beit Knesset Beit Elokim,” which my Sabba Moshe had maintained with his brother Yisrael for decades, neighbors, many from the same village in Morocco, would come to pray in the same style as their fathers and grandfathers had. There was plenty to do.

Since I had last been in the house in Canaan, our lives changed completely. With the death of my Savta earlier this year, the pictures on the wall began to collect dust and the house waited, silently preserving memories. The soul that once animated the boisterous center of our familial life had, in the absence of my grandparents, gone dormant, rendering the structure still. The new year presented us with the chance to revive it.

As I walked through the house, sweeping up dust and debris into little piles, I had a few moments to think. I was still in the US when my Savta died. When it happened, I hadn’t seen her in nearly three years, and even then, she had long since lost much of her memory. The last time we said goodbye, in the hope of not confusing my Savta further, I told her that I was going home for the night and I would see her again tomorrow. Three years later, sweeping the same floors she swept, I felt I finally had a chance to say goodbye to my Savta Chana whose love transcended distance, time, and even death.

Gripping the same broom she had used a thousand times, I thought of the little woman I was lucky enough to call my Savta. She was tiny, barely five feet off the ground, but an absolute force. Her hair was a henna-dyed fiery orange that conveyed her ferocious vitality even after her body began to weaken in her old age. My Savtah’s hands were simultaneously the tools of a skilled artist when she cooked or baked for her eight children and twenty-four grandchildren, and lethal weapons when she pinched your cheeks, accompanied by a Kappara Aleicha or Nabibashk, terms of endearment for those she loved.

There is an inherent magic that places possess in their ability to connect us to each other. It’s why we return to the site of a first date to propose, or why we avoid that same place after a bad breakup. It’s why tourists flock in the millions to national monuments, and devoted widows bring flowers to their late partner’s grave. Places lock away vivid memories for safekeeping, until we return to explore and reminisce and laugh and cry at all of the wondrous moments we’d nearly forgotten.

II. The Brown Paper Bag

In the synagogue above the house, I followed along in the Siddur, trying to sing unfamiliar melodies. I’ve always thought the synagogue itself was beautiful. At its entrance, a staircase of more than a dozen steps leads worshippers into the center of a simple room. Red benches line the walls allowing those present to see each other, although few raise their eyes from their prayers, except to look longingly towards heaven. At the front of the room stands the ark. Behind its red curtain rest six ornately decorated Torah scrolls.

The story behind the synagogue’s founding is a rather incredible one. In the 20th century, nearly 250,000 Moroccan Jews came to Israel. Their arrival was a combination of persecution and ideology. Among these new Israelis was Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeria, more commonly known as the Baba Sali. The Baba Sali was a master Kabbalist and Torah scholar of the highest order. Within the Sephardi community, stories of the mystic’s seemingly supernatural gifts are ubiquitous. One such story took place in that same house in Canaan.

After settling in Netivot, the Baba Sali set out to visit the members of his community throughout the country. Tzfat was home to significant Moroccan community, including my Sabba Moshe and his brother, Yisrael, who knew the Abuhatzeria family in Morocco. When the sage came to Tzfat, he always stayed with the two brothers. What are today separate homes were, at the time,  little more than two rooms, separated by a curtain.

On the first such occasion, the pair rushed to prepare the space for the Baba Sali. Yisrael, who owned a corner store in the neighborhood, brought dozens of bottles of Arak, a fennel-based liquor, to the house. The Baba Sali was known to give his blessings by pouring a small shot of Arak for each of his devotees. Thousands of people came to seek out his spiritual advice and so, logically, a lot of the drink was needed.

The wall of the room in which the holy man would receive his visitors was lined with bottles of the Middle Eastern alcohol. As the story goes, upon entering the room, the Baba Sali did something peculiar. He took a single bottle of Arak, opened it, and placed it in a brown paper bag. He handed the bottle to his assistant and instructed him not to put the bottle down until the last person had been in to see him. As the pilgrims entered the room, the bottle continued to yield, pour after pour. It was miraculous. The bottle seemed to never run dry. Finally, when the last person had seen the mystic, he instructed his assistant to remove the brown bag and set the bottle down. When he revealed the bottle, it was empty.

These visits happened nearly a dozen times over the course of twenty years. It was on one such occasion that the Baba Sali instructed Sabba Moshe and Yisrael to build a synagogue above their joined houses. 

It was in this synagogue that I sat alone on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah. While the other worshipers had gone home to eat and rest, I slipped away from my family for a few moments of privacy with my thoughts. As I sat, I spent little time thinking about the miraculous story of the Baba Sali. Instead, I thought about Sabba Moshe. I stared at the spot in the synagogue where he always sat. I thought about his absence and I cried. I cried because of the loss I felt—that my family felt. I cried because of how unfairly suffering seems to be distributed. I remembered him making silly faces at me during Shabbat prayers and squeezing my hand like a lemon when I went to shake his and I laughed. I scanned the room for a brown paper bag, that I might place these memories into it and make them infinite.

III. Time Travel

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, my family gathered around the table as they had so many times before. I was grateful to be there. We made blessings over pomegranates, apples dipped in honey, and dates. We ate salads and fish and chicken and lamb, all the while laughing at each other’s little jokes and jabs.

After the meal, the cousins decided it was time to go on the walk that we’d always take around the neighborhood to help us burn off some of the excess food and stretch our legs. For some odd reason, we made a left turn instead of a right one. This was strange because, as far back as I can remember, we had always turned right.

As the walk went on, I couldn’t let go of our left turn. Had things changed so much that we had forgotten which way to turn? Why were we walking backwards?

I think now, that we walked backwards because we’d hoped to unwind time and return to the days where our memories were made. The mystics and cooking and handshakes and meals together have combined to elevate this home to a place of holiness. At times, such a special place with such treasured memories makes moving forward feel impossible. How could we ever leave those things behind? 

The most obvious lesson of Rosh Hashanah is that time, no matter the circumstances, presses forward. My hope is that the future holds as many memories as the past. I hope that this house can always be a meeting place for my family in times of celebration, and a place of comfort in times of grief. I hope that this house is always our home, and I hope that one day our children know that when they go for a walk in the neighborhood, they should always turn right.