Sfenj, derived from the Arabic word for “sponge,” are crispy and chewy doughnuts made with unsweetened, sticky yeast dough that is risen until light and fluffy, pulled into rings and fried until golden. They’re a breakfast staple in Morocco and other Maghrebi countries and often eaten by Sephardic Jews during Hanukkah, symbolizing the oil that fuelled the holiday miracle. Sfenj should be served piping hot and can be enjoyed plain, drizzled with honey or dusted with sugar. They’re simple to make at home, only require the most basic ingredients and don’t contain any eggs or milk — so you can add them to your list of best vegan recipes too.
Rest Time: 2 hours
Dissolve the yeast and sugar in ½ cup of lukewarm water and set aside to bloom for 10 minutes.
In a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the yeast mixture with flour and gradually add 1 ¼ cups of lukewarm water until it forms a sticky dough. Then add the salt and continue to knead for about 10 minutes, which will make the dough springy and elastic. A stand mixer with a hook attachment is ideal for this, but you can also mix by hand, working the dough vigorously. The dough should still end up very sticky and loose.
Cover the bowl with a tea towel and let the dough rise for 2 to 3 hours, until light, airy — and they double or triple in size. (To speed up the rising time, put dough in the oven with the light turned on).
In a high-sided pan or pot, heat 1 to 2 inches of vegetable oil on medium heat until hot, measured on a candy or deep-fry thermometer between 360°F to 370°F. (A Dutch oven works great for this because it maintains a consistent temperature and its heavy weight anchors it to the burner, reducing the risk of accidents when deep frying). If you don’t have a thermometer, you can test the temperature of the oil with the handle end of a wooden spoon. If you see lots of little bubbles form around the wood, your oil is ready to fry in.
Keep a small bowl of cold water handy for wetting your hands before you shape each doughnut. Lightly punch down the dough to deflate it. Pull off a piece of batter about the size of an egg. Use your thumb to make a hole in the centre of the dough and then pull gently to form a doughnut shape. (Don’t worry about getting them perfect, they will puff up nicely in the oil).
Carefully put the doughnuts one at a time into the pot of hot oil and don’t overcrowd them. (A good rule of thumb is 3 to 4 doughnuts at a time). Fry the doughnuts for 1 to 2 minutes until golden brown on the bottom and puffed on top. Then flip carefully with a slotted spoon or metal tongs and cook on the other side for another 1 to 2 minutes, until even in colour and golden brown all over.
Remove the finished doughnuts onto a cooling rack lined with paper towels to drain the excess oil. Serve piping hot or warm, either plain, drizzled with hot honey or dusted with cinnamon or sugar — and preferably accompanied by a glass of Moroccan mint tea.