The kitchen in Nir Mesika’s childhood home near Haifa extended beyond its four walls — a seven minute walk in one direction and a five minute drive in another to the homes of his grandparents. “Both families used to live in the kitchen,” Nir, who is the chef and owner of the restaurant Timna, says.
On Hanukkah, pans of oil bubbled in both of his grandmothers’ kitchens. His Moroccan grandmother Mazal fried sfinj, a light ring-shaped doughnut. Nearby, Rubi, Nir’s Egyptian grandmother, would drop small bubble gum-sized balls of dough into the hot oil to make zalabia that were dressed with a syrup of honey and served after lighting the menorah.
While zalabia is popular with many Jewish families from the Maghreb to India for Hanukkah, Nir explains that Rubi learned her recipe from her Muslim neighbors in Alexandria who would make the sweet during Ramadan. “Even for the Jews, it was a really exciting month,” Nir explains recalling stories his grandmother told him.
For the dough: In a small bowl, add the yeast to warm water. Let sit until bubbles start to form, about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, sift the flour into a medium bowl and add sugar.
Add the yeast mixture to the flour, and whisk to combine (dough should be on the wet side). Mix in oil and salt. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 40 minutes in a warm place or until dough has doubled in size and bubbles start to form on the top.
For the Syrup: Combine honey, orange blossom water, lemon juice, and lemon zest in a medium bowl. Set aside.
For the Doughnuts: Fill a high walled, heavy bottomed pot with 3-4 inches of canola oil. Warm the oil over high heat until small pieces of dough start to cook when you test them in the oil.
Lightly coat hands in oil. Working in batches, pinch off 2 tablespoons of dough at a time and gently lower into hot oil. The shape of the dough will be irregular.
Fry, turning occasionally, until puffed, crisp and golden brown, about 2 minutes each side. Make sure to monitor the heat (turning it down when necessary) so that the outside of the doughnuts do not cook too quickly leaving the inside undercooked. Remove from oil using a slotted spoon and place directly into the bowl with the sauce. Toss to coat.
Stack on a serving dish, sprinkle with extra sauce, and serve immediately.