Hanukkah may be the Jewish festival of lights, but it is also, in the culinary sense at least, a festival of oil. Jewish cooks around the world fry foods to commemorate the ancient miracle of how a day's worth of oil burned for eight days in the newly liberated temple of Jerusalem. Hanukkah begins at sundown on Dec. 8 this year; greet it with a big plate of freshly fried bimuelos.
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.
"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 F, 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.
"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.
Tory 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."
FRITTERS WITH SWEET SYRUP
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup milk
Grapeseed or peanut oil, for frying
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon rose water or orange-blossom water
Mix the flour, baking powder and salt together in a bowl with a fork. Beat the egg in a separate bowl. Whisk the milk into egg until well-combined. Add egg-and-milk mixture to flour mixture; stir with a fork until a batter forms.
Heat about an inch of oil in a deep skillet or heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat until hot enough for frying, about 365 F. Working in batches, use a metal soup spoon to scoop up by heaping tablespoonfuls; drop into hot oil, which should sizzle but not splatter; if oil pops or splatters, let it cool slightly before proceeding. Fry fritters until golden-brown on both sides, turning once during cooking, 2 to 3 minutes total. Drain fritters on rack set over paper towels.
Heat the sugar and 3/4 cup water to a boil in a small saucepan, stirring occasionally; add the rose or orange blossom water. Reduce heat; simmer until liquid thickens and coats back of a spoon, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat; cool slightly. Serve hot, with warm syrup poured over freshly fried fritters.
Makes 20 fritters.