Zengoula with Lemon Syrup (Iraqi Funnel Cakes)
Author Notes: I can’t stop thinking about zengoula. For weeks, I’ve been cooking from one of the best new books this year, The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen, by the gifted cook and writer (and my dear friend) Amelia Saltsman. Amelia is a native Californian whose Iraqi father and Romanian mother met and married in Israel before immigrating to Los Angeles. She's captured a world of Jewish food through the lens of her diverse family traditions and her own intuitive cooking style, and the result is food that we want to eat now—fresh and modern yet somehow still authentic and comforting.
Zengoula with Lemon Syrup is a great example of a traditional dish with a little twist that makes a big difference. Instead of plain sugar syrup, the pastries are soaked in fresh lemon syrup. The results are easy to imagine: more fragrant and wonderful and, I have to say it, "zingier” zengoula.
Amelia writes in her book: "Also known as jalabi, these crisp fritters, or funnel cakes, were adopted by Iraqi Jews centuries ago as the perfect fried food to celebrate the miracle of Hanukkah. Traditionally soaked in sugar syrup, they are infinitely more wonderful when infused with a tangy lemon syrup (in spring or summer, dip them in Rose Geranium Syrup). It takes only a few minutes to whisk together the forgiving batter the night before you want to serve zengoula, and the pastries can be fried early in the day you want to serve them. Or, make the frying a Hanukkah party activity. My cousin Elan Garonzik has vivid memories of our grandmother turning out perfect coils, which is how they're sold at Arab bakeries like Moutran in Nazareth and Jaffa. That takes a bit of practice. Free-form Rorschach-like shapes—seahorses, dolphins, geese—that magically appear as they bubble up in the hot oil are just as delicious. You will need to begin this recipe at least six hours before you want to serve the zengoula."
Makes 8 servings
For the syrup:
- 2 to 3 lemons
- 1/2 cup (120 milliliters) water
- 1 cup (200 grams) sugar
- Using a five-hole zester, remove the zest from 1 of the lemons in long strands. Halve and squeeze enough lemons to yield 1/3 cup (75 milliliters) juice.
- In a small pot, stir together the lemon juice and zest, water, and sugar over medium heat. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring frequently, until the sugar is completely dissolved and clear, about 1 minute. Pour into a pie pan and let cool.
- The syrup can be made 1 day ahead, covered, and refrigerated.
For the dough and for frying:
- 1 1/8 teaspoons (1/2 package) active dry yeast
- 1 1/4 cups (300 milliliters) warm water (100° F to 110° F), divided
- 1 cup (125 grams) all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup (95 grams) cornstarch
- Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 quarts mild oil with medium-high smoke point, such as grapeseed, sunflower, or avocado, for deep-frying
- In a small bowl, stir together the yeast and 1/4 cup (60 milliliters) of the warm water and let stand in a warm place until the mixture bubbles, about 10 minutes.
- In a medium bowl, using a fork, stir together the flour, cornstarch, and salt. Stir in 1/2 cup (120 milliliters) of the warm water and the yeast mixture. Then slowly stir in enough of the remaining 1/2 cup (120 milliliters) warm water until the dough is lump-free and the consistency of thick pancake batter. You should have 1 1/2 to 2 cups (360 to 480 milliliters) batter.
- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until doubled in bulk, at least 6 hours and up to 24 hours. The dough will be loose and spongy and have a yeasty aroma.
- To make the fritters: Scrape the dough into a 1-gallon (4-liter) resealable plastic bag or large pastry bag fitted with a 1/4-inch (6-millimeter) plain pastry tip and set the bag in a bowl for support. Let the dough stand for about 30 minutes before frying. Line a large plate with paper towels. Place the prepared plate, tongs, a small spider or slotted spoon, the syrup, and a tray to hold the finished fitters near the stove.
- Pour the oil to a depth of 3 1/2 inches (8 1/2 centimeters) into a 4- or 5-quart (4- or 5-liter) pot, wok, or electric fryer and heat to 375° F. If using a plastic bag for the dough, snip 1/4 inch (6 millimeters) off one of the bottom corners, cutting on the diagonal, to create a piping tip. Roll the top of the pastry bag closed to move the batter toward the opening. Don't worry about air pockets.
- Pipe a bit of the batter into the hot oil. The oil should bubble around the batter immediately. If it does not, continue heating the oil and try again.
- Pipe the dough into the hot oil, creating 3- to 4-inch (7 1/2- to 10-centimeter) coils or squiggles, letting gravity help push the batter out. Be careful not to crowd the pan. Fry the dough, turning over at the halfway point, until bubbled, golden, and crisp, 4 to 5 minutes total.
- Use a spider or slotted spoon to fish the fritters out of the oil, drain them briefly on the towel-lined plate, and then drop them into the syrup for a moment or two, turning them to coat evenly. Lift them out of the syrup and transfer them to the tray in a single layer to cool.
- Repeat with the remaining batter, skimming any loose bits of dough from the hot oil between batches to prevent burning. Scrape any batter that escaped into the bowl back into the pastry bag to make more pastries.
- The cooled pastries can be piled on a platter. Pour any remaining syrup over the top.
- The fritters taste best served the same day they are made, although they will hold their crispness overnight. Store loosley covered at room temperature.