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Q&A: Dough’s Fany Gerson Talks Mexico and Donuts

Despite my love for many, many of this country’s donuts, I’m just going to come out and say it: This year, for Hanukkah, I’m going to be I’m spending all my donut gelt at Brooklyn’s Dough.

My Hanukkah-season fixation with Brooklyn’s Dough bakery is due neither to the teeny corner shop’s amazing size-to-price proportions (ginormous donuts; a mere two bucks) nor to the selection of heartbreakingly good glazes (including but not limited to the “rich enough to stop time” earl grey and the simultaneously sweet and tart hot pink hibiscus). And while their yeast-donuts-only policy is exciting to me (a total yeast donut devotee), that’s not my reason, either.

My reason is Fany Gerson, Dough’s very own donut maven.

Gerson is best known for her recent cookbooks, “My Sweet Mexico” and “Paletas” and for her much-loved Mexican frozen treats truck (and soon-to-be brick and mortar shop) La Newyorkina. But I first encountered – and, frankly, fell in love with — Gerson through her perfectly cloud-soft crispy-edged fried confections at Dough (the texture of which “The Village Voice” compared to white wedding cake).

Gerson, who was raised in Mexico but has Russian roots too, loves to talk about her passion for blending her cultural traditions in recipes, especially when it comes to holiday recipes. Hanukkah is no exception.

It’s no secret that Hanukkah jelly donuts — or sufganiyot, as they’re called in Hebrew — exist in a wide variety of forms far beyond their more-popularized Ashkenazic context. Zvingoi — fried cinnamon-spiced and honey-dipped confections — are popular among Jews in Greece and sfenz flavored with orange blossom are traditional in Libyan Jewish communities. Turkish Jews celebrate with burmuelos, wheat-based yeast donuts that are often flavored with anise.

Meanwhile, Gerson is a prominent part of a community of chefs (more of whom are profiled here) blending their Mexican and Jewish heritages in their Hanukkah confections. Using the donut fillings she grew up with – guava and mango among them – she is constantly re-interpreting the Hanukkah donut.

Amidst baking and frying, Gerson found some time to talk about donuts and other Hanukkah culinary treats with me as a perfect preview to my own donut-focused holiday. We were also lucky enough to get her jelly donut recipe from her cookbook, “My Sweet Mexico” below the Q&A!

Temim Fruchter: There have been so many articles written about your Jewish recipes, often connected to holidays and celebrations — your pan-fried gefilte fish, your coconut-stuffed rugelach, your milk fudge. Do you develop new recipes and traditions for holidays each year or do you prefer to perfect the old ones?

Fanny Gerson: I like to take traditional recipes and then give them some of the flavors that I grew up with. The Mexican gefilte fish recipe is something we ate when I was growing up but, over time, I’ve changed the sauce that my grandmother made to my own, so I guess it’s a little bit of both!

What were some of your Hanukkah donut traditions growing up? How have they changed over the years? Do they ever creep into your work as a professional donut-maker?

Hanukkah isn’t that big in Mexico so there weren’t many traditions, but it was the time of year when I could eat as many jelly donuts as I wanted without getting in trouble! These days, I always like to experiment with different jams and other things to fill the donuts in a way that makes them taste a bit more like Mexico.

Filled donuts are a longstanding Hanukkah tradition in many Jewish communities. What’s the best, most killer filled donut you’ve ever had (aside from the ones you’ve made, of course)?

I lived in Israel for a year and I was out dancing one night, when suddenly someone started handing out donuts. Just imagine it – people dancing and eating donuts (and they ate every single one!). They were some of the best donuts I’ve ever had, and I’ve even tried to find out where they came from, but I’ve had no luck.

Are you planning on a special edition Hanukkah donut at Dough?

Yes! I am planning to do some special things and am currently testing different jellies and jams.

I’m thinking of trying to make jelly donuts this year, but the last time I tried, they came out kind of like sugary rocks. What’s some advice you generally give amateur donut-makers, especially when it comes to making jelly donuts?

Patience! A yeast donut requires plenty of time to rise properly. Also, it’s good to have a thermometer to make sure your frying oil is at the correct temperature. But above all, be in a good mood when you’re making them! This applies to all cooking but I think it’s particularly important when it comes to donuts.

In this article, you write beautifully about the connections between food and memory. Do you have a favorite food memory connected to something fried (and thus Hanukkah-appropriate!)?

Just one?! Well, churros are big in Mexico and there’s a wonderful churreria (churro shop) downtown where it’s a spectacle to watch the churros as they’re made. I remember the first time I went there – I was so enamored of the coiled fritters that were then cut with scissors and tossed in Mexican cinnamon and sugar. It’s still one of my favorite places to go.

Donas Rellenas de Mermelada de Fresa | Strawberry Jelly Doughnuts

Reprinted with permission from “My Sweet Mexico: Recipes for Authentic Pastries, Breads, Candies, Beverages, and Frozen Treats”.

2½ tablespoons active dry yeast
1¼ cups whole milk, at room temperature
4 to 4½ cups bread flour
¾ cup sugar
½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise, or 1 teaspoon lime zest (depending on personal preference)
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
5 egg yolks
½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

Strawberry Jam
2 pounds strawberries, hulled
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon or lime juice
Pinch of salt
Vegetable oil, for frying
Sugar, for rolling
To make the dough, combine the yeast and ½ cup of the milk in a bowl, stirring until the yeast is dissolved. Let sit until it begins to foam, about 5 minutes.

Combine 4 cups of the flour with the sugar in a mixer with the hook attachment and add the foamy yeast mixture. Scrape the vanilla bean into the mixture and add the remaining ¾ cup milk, the salt, eggs, and egg yolks. Discard the vanilla bean or save for another use. Mix on low speed until the dough starts to come together, and then add the butter. Increase the speed to medium and mix until the dough is smooth and elastic, 15 to 20 minutes. It will be slightly sticky but shouldn’t tear easily.

Lightly coat a large bowl with canola or vegetable oil. Put the dough inside and cover with a slightly damp towel or plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm area (about 70°F) until doubled in size, about 1½ hours. Once it’s doubled, bring the edges to the center and turn over.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll out into a rectangle about ½ inch thick and cut out as many 2½-inch circles as possible. Put them on a parchment paper–lined baking sheet and cover lightly with a towel.

Gather the scraps and put them on top of each other instead of making a big ball. Reroll the dough (if you feel like the dough is shrinking as you’re trying to roll it out, wrap it in plastic and refrigerate for about 10 minutes) and cut out more circles for a total of about 42. Leave a few pieces of dough of the same thickness to test the oil later. Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm area (about 70°F) until doubled in size and the dough springs back when touched, about 30 minutes.

To make the strawberry jam, slice or coarsely chop the strawberries and put in a small nonreactive pot with the sugar and lemon juice. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Add the salt and adjust the heat to maintain a constant soft boil and skim off the foam as it forms. Continue cooking until the jam tightly grabs a spoon or sets when you put a little bit on a cold plate, 15 to 25 minutes.

Pour the oil into a heavy pot to a depth of 3 inches and heat to 375°F (use a piece of the dough you set aside to test the oil; it should sink and then quickly rise to the top and bubble). Fry the doughnuts, a few at a time, turning with a slotted spoon, chopsticks, or tongs, until evenly golden on both sides and puffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Drain on a paper bag or towel and roll in sugar while still warm.

Fit a pastry bag with a small flat tip (about ½ inch) and spoon in the strawberry jam. Insert the tip into the side or bottom of each doughnut and fill with jam. Serve immediately. Makes about 31⁄2 dozen

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