They were available year-round at tiny, crammed neighborhood grocers. I always ran late to school, yet I would stop in to grab the last one, sitting in its shallow cardboard box at the checkout counter.
Those kinds of markets are nearly extinct, and Israel's doughnuts have become more of a winter/seasonal treat - especially around Hanukkah.
The country's bakery shops are filled with sensational displays, and pastry chefs try to do outdo each other with memorable doughnut flavors and fillings. The doughs themselves are generally not as sweet as those used in the States. Over the years I've noticed fillings of choya, an Asian plum liqueur; pineapple and passion fruit with white chocolate; halvah; Irish cream and coffee; mascarpone-thyme; pistachio cream; even some inspired by Pop Rocks and Oreos. Some doughnuts come with a plastic syringe so customers can inject their own fillings.
One of Israel's pioneers of pastry arts is Celia Regev. The teacher, pastry consultant and founder of the innovative Reviva and Celia Pastry and coffee shop lived in Washington in 1997 when her husband was an emissary at the Israeli Embassy.
"When we opened Reviva and Celia [north of Tel Aviv] in 1988, there was nothing like it available at any other bakery," she said.
I found all kinds of examples of a baking renaissance going on in Israel on my recent trip home. While Reviva and Celia didn't use to offer sufganiyot ("doughnuts" in Hebrew), Regev agreed to share her recipe for decadent mini doughnuts filled with Meyer lemon pastry cream.
"This is my favorite," she says.
Tatti Lechem (Bread) opened its doors 10 years ago in Givatayim, a Tel Aviv suburb that has become a food lover's destination. (It's also the home of Oved, a shop whose eggplant and hard-cooked egg sandwich, or sabich, has become signature Tel Aviv street food.)
Girlfriends Anat "Tatti" Zarmati, 53, and Vanessa Rakin, 50, now own a handful of Tatti Lechem cafes and bread shops. Thanks in part to head pastry chef Barry Sayag, their airy pillows make the annual "best of" doughnut lists in Israel. The house-made strawberry jam filling with its hints of citrus and vanilla bean is a standout, as are the creme de cassis and Ferrero Rocher.
Tatti's doughnuts are a light, boozy version of the traditional Israeli sufganiyot. Sayag has come up with a recipe that's friendly to home cooks; the dough needs only one rise, and doughnuts cook within four minutes. (Every time, I was able to achieve that pale equator I'm so fond of.) Marzipan elevates a dark-chocolate ganache to luxurious heights, and any leftovers can be chilled, then whipped to serve on the side.
There comes a time, however - even at Hanukkah, when foods fried in oil are symbolic - that I appreciate baking doughnuts instead. Making ones that aren't bready can be tricky, though, so I asked Gidon Ben Ezra, who owns Sugar Daddy patisserie and coffee shop, tucked in a sleepy stretch of Tel Aviv's Bauhaus buildings. (His polenta-and-citrus sable cookies are not to be missed.)
The 35-year-old Le Cordon Bleu-trained pastry chef nailed the issue right off the bat.
"Are you using a fried doughnut recipe and baking those doughnuts instead?"
Guilty as charged.
Ben Ezra said that in order to emulate a fried doughnut or come close, the baked version's dough needs to be rich. His Nutella doughnuts are built on a supple buttermilk dough that's akin to brioche. It is untraditional, and I love it. The oven heat starts low and ends high, with added moisture. Their sauce - a ganache - is just the chocolate-hazelnut spread plus heavy cream, cooked on very low heat so it doesn't burn.
I admit that even when I visit Israel in the "off-season" for doughnuts, I still go on the occasional hunt for a corner grocer where there might be one jam-filled, sugar-dusted doughnut left, for me.
Meyer Lemon Pastry Cream Mini Doughnuts, makes 24 small doughnuts
These may be small, but they have nice body and structure. The zingy filling makes them special; it can be served on the side as well, for dipping. It's best to weigh ingredients for this recipe, and you'll need a thermometer to monitor the frying oil.
You'll have pastry cream left over, which can be used as you would a lemon curd. Or skip the pastry cream and use store-bought jam, lemon curd or a good-quality chocolate spread.
MAKE AHEAD: The dough needs to rest in the refrigerator overnight. The balls of dough need to rise at room temperature for 1 hour. The pastry cream can be refrigerated for up to 5 days. The doughnuts are best served the same day they are made. Adapted from a recipe by Israeli pastry chef and cooking instructor Celia Regev.
For the doughnuts
8.8 ounces (2 cups) flour, plus more as needed
1 tablespoon plus a scant 1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast (from 1 1/2 packets)
2 medium eggs, lightly beaten with enough water or milk to total 6 ounces
Finely grated zest of 1 large lemon or 2 Meyer lemons (2 to 3 teaspoons)
2 heaping tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into small cubes
Vegetable oil, preferably organic canola oil, for frying
Confectioners' sugar, for dusting
For the filling
1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (from regular or Meyer lemons)
Finely grated zest of 1 large lemon or 2 Meyer lemons (2 to 3 teaspoons)
1/2 vanilla bean, cut lengthwise (may substitute 1 teaspoon good-quality vanilla extract, added after the filling is removed from the heat)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
5 large egg yolks
3 tablespoons cornstarch
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into cubes
For the doughnuts: Sift the 8.8 ounces of flour into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough-hook attachment. Sprinkle the yeast over the flour and combine on low speed. Add the egg mixture and zest; beat to incorporate, then add the sugar and salt. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
On low speed, add the butter cubes a few at time, incorporating completely after each addition to form a sticky, soft dough. Gather the dough into a ball in the bowl. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight.
Meanwhile, make the filling: Combine the lemon juice, lemon zest and vanilla bean half in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring just to a boil, then immediately reduce the heat to medium-low. Discard the vanilla bean half.
Whisk together the sugar and egg yolks in a mixing bowl, and gradually add the cornstarch until well incorporated. Gradually whisk in half the warm juice to temper the egg-yolk mixture, then pour all the tempered mixture back into the saucepan. Whisk constantly, for about 5 minutes, until the mixture thickens to the consistency of pudding. Remove from the heat.
Add a few cubes of the butter at a time, whisking to thoroughly incorporate each addition. Once all the butter has been incorporated, the pastry cream will be smooth and shiny. The yield is about 2 cups.
Place plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pastry cream. Refrigerate until ready to use.
To make the doughnuts, fill a medium saucepan with oil that's about 3 1/2 inches deep. Heat to 335 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with several layers of paper towels. Have a wire cooling rack at hand.
Lightly flour a clean work surface. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper, then generously flour the paper. Create about 24 small balls of dough that are about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Lightly sprinkle the tops of the balls with flour, then cover with a clean dish towel. Let them sit at room temperature for 1 hour, to rise until almost doubled in size.
Use a pastry brush to knock off any excess flour from the balls as you work. Use a slotted spoon to add 3 or 4 balls to the hot oil at a time. They should quickly float to the top. Fry for about 2 minutes, until golden brown on the undersides, then turn them over and fry for about 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to the paper towels just long enough to wick away any excess oil, then transfer to the rack to cool. Repeat to fry all the doughnuts.
Fill a pastry bag fitted with a plain piping tip with the chilled lemon pastry cream filling (or fill a resealable plastic food storage bag and cut 1/2 inch off one bottom corner). Pierce the top of each mini doughnut and squeeze in just enough of the pastry cream until a small bit of it appears at the opening.
Dust each filled doughnut with confectioners' sugar. Serve right away.
Baked Buttermilk Nutella Ganache Doughnuts, makes 12 doughnuts
Although these are not fried, feel free to include them in a Hanukkah assortment of doughnuts (or anytime).
You'll need one or two doughnut baking pans. If you have a convection oven, turn the fan off when baking these.
MAKE AHEAD: The dough needs to rise for 1 1/2 hours. The doughnuts need to rise at room temperature for 30 minutes. Adapted from a recipe by pastry chef Gidon Ben Ezra of Sugar Daddy Bakery in Tel Aviv, Israel.
For the doughnuts
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons plus a scant 1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast (from 1 1/2 packets)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature, plus more for preparing pan
1 large egg, beaten
3/4 cup low-fat buttermilk
For the glaze
7 ounces (3/4 cup) Nutella, or other chocolate-hazelnut spread
1/4 cup whipping cream
For the doughnuts: Mix flour, sugar, salt and yeast in a mixer with a dough hook attached, on low speed.
Add the melted butter gradually and continue kneading in the mixer for 3 minutes. Add the vanilla, egg and buttermilk and knead on medium speed for about 8 minutes. The dough will be sticky and soft. Use a rubber spatula to gather the dough into a ball in the middle of the bowl. Cover the bowl with a clean dish towel and let rise in a warm place for 1 1/2 hours.
Prepare a doughnut pan by spraying the wells with nonstick cooking spray or brushing with melted butter.
Punch down the dough and divide the dough into 12 equal balls, about the size of a golf ball, about 2 1/2 ounces each. Dust the ball with flour and poke a hole in it, working the dough into the shape of a doughnut. Place the dough into the well of the doughnut pan and repeat until the pan is full or you use all the dough. (If you only have one doughnut pan, store extra dough in the refrigerator until ready to bake.)
Cover the pan with a clean dish towel and allow the dough to rise for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Bake for 13 minutes. The doughnuts should puff up, but not take on much color.
Meanwhile, make the ganache: On a low heat, add the Nutella and whipping cream and stir with a rubber spatula until nicely incorporated and glossy.
Remove the doughnuts from the pan to a wire rack to cool. Glaze the top half with Nutella ganache and serve immediately.
Brandy Doughnuts With Dark Chocolate Marzipan and Strawberry Confiture, makes 28 to 32 large doughnuts
The almost perfectly round shape makes these doughnuts look striking. Refreshingly, they are not too sweet. It's best to weigh ingredients for this recipe, and you'll need a thermometer to monitor the frying oil.
If you like, you can fill the doughnuts with the Strawberry Confiture; or buy good-qualilty strawberry preserves. Use the Dark Chocolate Marzipan as a glaze or filling. Or substitute your favorite filling.
MAKE AHEAD: The optional confiture can be made a day in advance, covered and refrigerated. Reheat gently in a saucepan before using. The formed doughnuts need to rise for one hour before frying. The doughnuts are best served soon after frying. Adapted from a recipe by pastry chef Barry Sayag of Tatti Bread in Israel.
For the doughnuts
14.8 ounces all-purpose flour (3 cups plus 2 tablespoons, measured by scooping the flour into a measuring cup and leveling)
12.7 ounces bread flour (2 3/4 cups plus 1 teaspoon, measured by scooping the flour into measuring cups and leveling)
2 tablespoons plus 3/4 teaspoon active dry yeast (from 3 envelopes of yeast)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus unsalted butter for greasing the baking sheets
11.1 ounces (a scant 1 1/3 cups) milk, at room temperature
2 tablespoons brandy (may substitute water, milk or orange juice)
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1.4 ounces (2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon) warm water
Vegetable oil, for frying
For the strawberry confiture
1 pound strawberries, hulled
11 ounces (a generous 1 1/3 cups) sugar
1 vanilla bean, split
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
For the dark chocolate-marzipan
9 ounces (1 cup plus 2 tablespoons) heavy whipping cream
2 ounces marzipan, pinched off into small pieces
9 ounces dark chocolate (55 percent cacao), cut into small pieces
For the doughnuts
Confectioners' sugar, for dusting
Place the flours, yeast, baking powder, sugar and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough-hook attachment and mix at low speed for a few seconds to combine. Add the butter, milk, brandy, eggs and water, and mix at low speed for 5 minutes, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Increase the speed to medium and mix for 6 minutes, until the dough is completely incorporated and smooth; keep a close eye on your mixer here, because the stiff dough may cause it to move around on the counter.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and grease with a little butter.
Form the dough into balls weighing 1 3/4 ounces; they will be a little larger than golf balls. Place them on the prepared baking sheets, cover each sheet with a clean kitchen towel and let them rise at room temperature for an hour or until doubled in volume.
While the dough is rising, fill a medium saucepan with at least 3 1/2 inches of oil; the level of the oil should come no more than 1 1/2 inches below the top of the saucepan (to avoid steaming the doughnuts as they fry). Heat to 356 degrees. Line a large platter with several thicknesses of paper towels. Have a wire cooling rack at hand.
Carefully add a few dough balls at a time to the oil. Fry for about 2 minute, until golden brown on the underside, then turn them over and fry for about 2 minutes. Use a large slotted spoon to transfer them to the paper towels just long enough to wick away any excess oil, then transfer them to the rack to cool. Repeat to fry all of the doughnuts.
For the confiture: Bring the strawberries, sugar, vanilla bean and lemon juice to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low and cook, with the mixture barely bubbling, until the jam thickens. Use a fork or stick blender to break up any large berry pieces. Discard the vanilla bean and cool. Transfer the confiture to a pastry bag fitted with a large plain piping tip, or to a kitchen syringe. Pierce the top of each doughnut and pipe in enough confiture until a small bit of it appears at the opening.
For the chocolate-marzipan: Bring the cream and marzipan to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low and add the chocolate, stirring until it has melted and the mixture is thoroughly combined. Remove from the heat and cool slightly. If using to glaze the doughnuts, dip each doughnut top in the mixture while it is still warm; allow to set until dried. If using to fill the doughnuts, transfer the mixture to a pastry bag fitted with a plain piping tip or to a kitchen syringe (or fill a resealable plastic food storage bag and cut 1/2 inch off one bottom corner). Pierce the top of each doughnut and pipe in enough confiture until a small bit of it appears at the opening.
Dust with confectioners' sugar, if desired. Serve as soon as possible.
Madnick is a recipe developer, cooking instructor and food photographer in Fairfax, Va. She blogs at www.foodwanderings.blogspot.com.