Festival of fritters
Change the Hanukkah celebration's fried element to a sweet dessert with Spanish roots
Happy holidays: Hanukkah begins at sundown on Dec. 8 this year; greet it with a big plate of freshly fried bimuelos. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
Bimuelos (bim-WAY-los) are dough fritters drizzled with a sweet syrup or dusted with powdered sugar. These Sephardic treats can provide a welcome alternative to latkes, the potato pancakes most identified with Hanukkah in North America, or sufganiyot, the jelly doughnuts so popular in Israel.
"I love latkes, but one day is enough for them. Hanukkah is an eight-day holiday," says chef Laura Frankel, author of "Jewish Cooking for All Seasons." Bimuelos are lighter, she said, and serving them allows celebrants to shift the fried-food element of the meal from main course to dessert.
Originating in Spain, bimuelos became the "pre-eminent Sephardic Hanukkah treat" and were often eaten daily during the holiday, according to Gil Marks' "Encyclopedia of Jewish Food." Bimuelos spread through the Mediterranean world when the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. It was then, Marks said, that many began to replace the sugar used as a topping in Spain with sweetened syrups common to the Middle East.
"Bimuelo" is the word for fritter in Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish language that could be considered the Sephardic version of Yiddish. The fritters are bunuelo in Spanish, loukoumas in Greek and awamee in Arabic.
Tori Avey, of Los Angeles, a food writer and blogger at The Shiksa in the Kitchen, (theshiksa.com), remembers well her first bite.
"I thought they tasted a lot like beignets," says Avey, referring to the famed fried dough balls of New Orleans. "It was crispy and warm and doughnutlike and drizzled with syrup." The fritters had an "exotic perfume," she recalled, because her mother-in-law used rose or orange water syrup to sweeten them.
While Avey will plate the syrup-coated fritters to serve guests, she admits with a laugh that when it's just family, everyone gathers around the frying pan. The sizzling fritters can turn into all kinds of shapes in the hot oil, she said, noting that when her husband was little, he would see all sorts of things in the shapes as his mother did the frying.
After frying, bimuelos are drizzled with syrup. Honey is the traditional choice. Choose a honey by the quality, Frankel said, not because of a cute bear-shaped bottle. "Go for a raw honey; it has better flavor," she said.
Avey often follows her mother-in-law's examples and uses rose or orange water. There are other options. Avey might flavor her sugar syrup with vanilla or coconut flavoring.
"You could serve it with agave," she added, "or even go with a good maple syrup. You can't mess them up."
"People frying at home always seems scary to me,'' admits chef Laura Frankel, author of "Jewish Cooking for All Seasons." It can be done, though, safely and relatively easily. Here are some of Frankel's tips for pain-free bimuelo frying.
1. Choose the right pan. "Go deeper than a saute pan,'' Frankel said. One of those deep skillets used for fried chicken or a heavy-bottomed saucepan could work.
2. Have your bimuelos ready and fully risen before heating the oil.
3. Choose the right oil. Frankel uses a mild extra-virgin olive oil heated to 350 degrees, no higher because olive oil has a low smoking point. Olive oil has a more authentic flavor, she says, though cold-pressed canola or grapeseed oil may be substituted, Frankel said.
4. Use a candy/deep-fry thermometer to check oil temperature. Remember the oil temperature will drop when the fritters are added.
Fritters with sweet syrup
Prep: 15 minutes