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History, Recipes, and Lore from Boston to Berlin
By Michael Krondl
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2014 Michael Krondl
All rights reserved.
THE HOLY DONUT
People love telling stories about food, and the more improbable the better. Certainly a complete absence of corroborating evidence never seems to get in the way. Take nun's farts, for example. This fritter, called pet de nonne in French, is an airy mouthful of crisp-tender dough, often thickly dusted with powdered sugar. The name goes back hundreds of years. As the eighteenth-century French author of In Praise of the Fart: A Dissertation on Its Historical, Anatomical, Philosophical Origin, on Its Antiquity and Virtues explained, this is a kind of globe-shaped fritter. He neglects to add that it is typically made by frying cream puff dough. As far as the name? "It was the nuns themselves who gave the name fart to one of their most exquisite pastries," he writes. "Everyone knows nun's farts, of which the [spiritual] directors, abbots, priests, and prelates are so fond and always well supplied."
As time passed, the story was fleshed out. Writing some one hundred years later, French food writer Jean-Camille Fulbert-Dumonteil painted a much more detailed picture. "On the banks of the Loire, beneath the sweet skies of Touraine rises the ancient Abbey of Marmoutier," the nun fart chronicler begins his account, without identifying just when the incident in question was supposed to have taken place. Apparently the abbess of that bygone era was known as quite the foodie ("neither the sky nor cuisine held any secrets for her"), and as a result the place was overrun by pilgrims looking for a three-star meal. The nuns knew they had a good thing going. "If God came down to earth in search of a good meal, he'd come to Marmoutier," they confessed.
One unspecified year, on the great festival day of St. Martin, the abbey was packed with even more hungry friars than usual, all presided over by the Archbishop of Tours. Not wishing to disappoint the great prelate, the nuns leaped into a whirlwind of activity to assemble a feast worthy of the occasion. Exquisite ragouts bubbled on the stoves. Fat capons, chickens, quail, and rabbits spun before roaring fires. The aromas of vanilla, citron, orange, nutmeg, cinnamon, and orange-flower water wafted throughout the vast kitchen. In preparation for the feast, the abbess herself stood before a great cauldron of boiling fat with Agnes, her favorite young nun, at her side, preparing to fry a batch of her signature fritters. Dumonteil informs us that the novice was not only a paragon of every nunnish virtue, but she could cook too. ("To her exceptional merits were joined the most marvelous culinary abilities.")
As the demure Agnes stood at the abbess's side, balancing a ball of the dough on her delicate spoon, out of nowhere ("ô scandale") came a strange, resonant, rhythmic, and prolonged sound, like the groan of an organ. The eyes of every mortified nun searched to see what could be the source of this woeful noise, and all eventually fixed on poor Agnes. Our virginal novice turned ashen white, then strawberry red, and, finally, trembling with shame, she dropped the morsel of dough into the hot grease. Astonishingly — nay miraculously! — the morsel enlarged, turned golden brown and engorged into a globe. The nuns gathered round to taste this new child of culinary providence and pronounced it wondrous. And the name? Well, was there any other choice?
Even if Dumonteil's story is delightfully implausible, at least it's not impossible. Unlike a description given by the Encyclopaedia Londinensis in 1823, which explains that the pastry is made by having the cook use a tube to blow into the batter in the manner of soap bubbles. (In real life, the way choux pastry works is that the airy center is formed when trapped steam expands the pastry even as the outside crust hardens to trap the air within.) But the Encyclopaedia's Protestant author was too busy making an ideological point about these papist trifles to worry himself with facts. As far as he was concerned, the presence of nun's farts on his side of the channel was just one more sign that England had run out of wind: "No wonder that our finical gentry should be so loose in their principles, as well as weak in their bodies, when the solid substantial protestant mincepie has given place among them to the Roman catholic amulets, and to the light, puffy, heterodox, pets de [nonnes]."
Needless to say, despite the story about their miraculous lineage, nun's farts most likely have a less saintly origin. According to that oracle of the French language, the dictionary of the Academie française, before the nuns came into the picture, there were pets de putain (whore's farts), which were, in turn, preceded by medieval pets d'Espagne (Spanish farts). The late-fourteenth-century account books of Margaret of Flanders mention not only the Spanish variety but also those belonging to gentlemen (pets chevalier).
The trouble is that we don't have any recipes for either those early Spanish or gentlemanly exhalations. The earliest instructions on how to make these sorts of airy crullers come from Italy, though with names that cry out for a little French fantasie. A sixteenth-century papal chef calls his fried miracles merely frittelle alla Veneziana, Venetian fritters. They still make them there for Carnival, so if you happen to be in town, seek them out. They're heavenly.
THE PREHISTORY OF THE DONUT
The story of donuts not only precedes the tale of the precocious nun but even Christianity itself. In fact it's likely that fried dough has been around ever since people first learned about the culinary potential of hot grease. A three-thousand-year-old inscription from the time of Pharaoh Ramses III seems to show a couple of cooks deep-frying strips of dough in a pot set over a fire. A millennium later, the Greeks certainly had something I'd call a donut. Athenaeus, the ancient world's best-known food maven, mentions at least a couple of donut-like treats. In a book called the Deipnosophists (Banquet of the Learned), the Greek author assembles a fictional toga party of learned scholars to chew the fat on everything from the proper way of cooking cuttlefish to the benefits of gay sex. "I am fond of cakes," the narrator declares before launching into a heavily annotated compendium that goes on for pages. In the midst of this exhaustive tour of cheesecakes, nut confections, and other sweetmeats, our guide points out two sorts of fried cakes. First he singles out something called fried bread, which may or may not be sweet. But then he goes on to describe enkrides. This delicate morsel of fried dough dripping with honey sounds an awful lot like what contemporary Greeks call loukoumades. "[It is] a small pastry deep-fried in olive oil and covered with honey afterward," our learned donut authority explains, making sure to reference some half dozen literary sources who mention this classical cruller.
The Romans had fried dough balls too. The curmudgeonly third century BCE statesman Cato the Elder had no use for the trendy indulgences of a younger generation, but he wasn't against all worldly pleasures. He was fond enough of his globi (balls) to write down the recipe. These ball-shaped fritters were made by mixing together equal parts of fresh cheese and spelt flour. They were fried until crisp and caramelized on the outside before being dipped in honey and sprinkled with poppy seeds. They sound utterly delicious. A few centuries later, the Roman cookbook writer known as Apicius gives us a very different fried-dough recipe. This one is made using a method resembling the one used to make today's churros. To make the dough, you boil water or milk with flour. Apicius then has you cool and cut it in pieces before frying in olive oil. Puffed and crunchy from the hot oil, the fritters were drizzled with honey before serving. Interestingly, in Naples, the traditional method of making the dough for zeppole is almost identical.
One thing these ancient sources don't mention is any connection between fried cakes and religion, something that you find over and over in many other fry-happy cultures. According to some readings of Leviticus, a text that scholars date back at least twenty-five hundred years, worshippers were instructed to bring an offering of "cakes mingled with oil, of fine flour, fried" — as the King James Bible translates it. Sounds like donuts, right? Sure, until the biblical nitpickers get a hold of it, and then you get a dozen dueling opinions about what the original text really means. Depending on the authority, that ranges from a kind of greasy matzo all the way to a shallow-fried donut and every variation in between. God knows, I'm not getting in the middle of that food fight.
The connection between fried dough and Hanukkah is much less controversial. If you know anything about the Jewish festival of lights, you've probably heard of potato latkes, but if you think these reflect some age-old Hebrew tradition, think again. Potatoes didn't even make it to the Jewish settlements in Eastern Europe until the eighteenth century. The point of the pancakes isn't the potatoes, it's the fact that they're fried. That's why other Jewish communities put donuts on the holiday menu.
Hanukkah celebrates a miracle that was supposed to have taken place some twenty-two hundred years ago in the Holy Land. After a devastating war, Jerusalem was a wreck, its temple desecrated, and Judaism itself outlawed in its own homeland. But the Jews fought back and, led by the priestly family of the Maccabees, recaptured Jerusalem, the temple, the whole lot. But there was a problem. Once they'd rededicated the temple, all they could find was one little vial of the ritually untainted olive oil needed for the nine-branched candelabra, barely enough to keep the thing going for a single day. And here's where the miracle comes in, because for eight days and nights, it burned on and on. Or at least that's the way the writers of the Talmud told it — some five hundred years later. In years to come Jews would commemorate the miracle by lighting a menorah for the holiday and, at least since the Middle Ages, they have found it a convenient excuse to fry dough. The miracle involved oil, right? So what do you do with oil? You use it to fry donuts!
The shape and names of these Hanukkah sinkers vary from place to place. If your heritage is Sephardic, you'll call them bimuelos, and if your family comes from Syria, zalabia. In Morocco, they go in for a fritter resembling an Amish funnel cake. Other North African Jews roll cookie dough into a rose shape before frying and dipping it in sugar syrup or honey. Even in India, Jews turn to a local fried specialty, gulab jamun, for the festival. And to make sure everyone is included in this fry fest, many Sephardic Jews distribute their fritters to those who are less donut endowed.
Perhaps in time people in the Middle East will realize how much they have in common. For example, Turkish Jews fry up lokmas for Hanukkah. Both the name and the recipe come from the Arabic luqmat al-qadi — meaning "judge's morsels." (Greek loukoumades share the same etymology.) Muslims and Jews alike make these fritters by dropping balls of yeast batter into hot oil before dipping them in a rosewater-scented syrup. The resulting sweet, aromatic mouthfuls are disarmingly both crisp and moist. In the old days, the recipes could be more complex. A version from medieval Baghdad ups the ante by adding a filling of almond paste. Those medieval judges were not fools.
There are dozens of fried desserts across the Muslim world. Some resemble fried cookies while others are more donut-like. Morocco's sfenj looks just like an American old-fashioned, hole and all. Given all the fuss, expense, and bother of making fried dough, these are usually not made at home but rather bought from a specialist for religious festivals, especially the breaking of the fast at Ramadan.
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is supposed to be dedicated to fasting and spiritual regeneration. From sunup to sundown, an observant Muslim is expected to abstain from food and drink and meditate on religious matters. You'd think that people would lose weight during Ramadan, but it turns out that the opposite is true. Self-denial during daylight seems to give permission to many to overdo it at night.
Perhaps more fanatical about their Ramadan donuts than most, Algerians line up for hours before sundown for their zalabia, as the treats are called there. Reporting from the Algerian town of Boufarik in 2010, local correspondent Soumia Alloui found people starting to line up in the blazing Sahara sun as early as eleven in the morning to get the Ramadan treats. By three in the afternoon, the hot and ravenous customers got so numerous that they caused traffic jams in the neighborhoods of the most famous zalabia shops. Whereas in the Middle East, zalabia are more or less the same thing as luqmat al-qadi, here, in Algeria, the batter is poured through a funnel to make long straight strips — a little like a rectilinear funnel cake. You really do need divine assistance to wait until sundown before biting into one — hot, crisp, and succulent with sweet syrup.
The shape and composition of the Ramadan sweets vary from place to place, but the craving for carbs and fat after a long day of fasting is common to most parts of the Muslim world. So much so that prices for oil, sugar, and honey spike during the monthlong fast. Shops jack up their prices too. People complain, but the higher prices seem to have no impact on their sweets intake — or take the air out of their ballooning waistlines.
The donut culture of the Muslim world extends far beyond the Middle East. To the West, many of Spain's fried treats have medieval Arabic precedents. In the east, Persians are just as obsessed with their version of zulbia (as it's called in Iran), which takes the form of a crisp spiral made with a batter of wheat starch and yogurt. India has a version of this as well. A thousand years ago, when Persian-speaking invaders rode into the subcontinent, they made sure to pack not only the Koran but also recipes for all sorts of delicious pastries. This is how Pakistanis and Indians learned to make the candy-like tangles of fried dough called jalebi (a corruption of the word zulbia). The Muslim invaders also brought a round fritter that eventually became gulab jamun. (Gulab comes from the Persian word for rosewater, while jamun refers to a local fruit of roughly this size.) In India, this juicy, sweet-scented morsel is about the size of a Ping-Pong ball. The recipe is more complex than in the Middle East, requiring a mixture of dried and fresh milk thickened with flour. But as in Iran, the mixture is fried and soaked in rosewater syrup.
Given how obsessed Indians are with sweets of every description, it's likely they already had plenty of fried treats before the foreign interlopers arrived. At least that's the impression you get from King Somesvara III, the sometime ruler of a middling medieval kingdom not far from today's Mumbai, who wrote a sort of idiot's guide to kingship. Exhaustive and also at times delightfully kinky, the how-to manual gives the impression that the king had too much time on his hands. He gives advice on topics as varied as religion, interior design, and child rearing. He has opinions on the best sorts of umbrellas and the best kinds of beds — and plenty of tips about what to do in those beds. His majesty also includes a selection of donut recipes.
As you'd expect of someone who advocates variety in sexual partners, the good king offers us an eclectic assortment of fried sweets. There's a sugar-sweetened donut (more like a donut hole) made with wheat flour and scented with cardamom and pepper, which is shaped into small balls and cooked in ghee. A similar, super-crispy treat is made with chickpea flour; another uses black lentil flour and gets dunked in sugar syrup, much like its Middle Eastern cousins. Perhaps the most intriguing is a recipe for a cheese-based fritter — mainly because most modern Indians would still recognize it. To make it, you form balls out of a dough of fresh cheese curds mixed with rice flour, fry these in ghee, and then soak them in cardamom-scented syrup. I imagine the king feeding the morsels — tender, buttery, and dripping with the perfumed syrup — to his favorite as she lies resplendent on a silk-lined bed.
Most of these fritters still exist and in more than one variation. Still, if Somesvara were alive today, I'd bet he'd go for something called a ledikeni, if only because it is named after a feisty — and almost royal — lady. The lady in question was Countess Charlotte Canning, the wife of the Indian viceroy Charles Canning. The tall, striking brunette arrived in India in 1856, more interested in roaming the hot and dusty roads of the British raj and painting watercolors than playing hostess back in her Calcutta palace. In between her official duties, she managed to produce scores of accomplished paintings. She also found time to send letters to her sometime mentor Queen Victoria about local conditions. There were, however, no pictures of sweetmeats and no word of fried dough balls in the missives to Buckingham Palace. If there had been, presumably the queen would not have been amused. When it came to Indian sweets, the English mostly seemed horrified by them. But they were awfully polite. Which was most likely Lady Canning's reaction when she got her present of syrup-soaked fritters.
Excerpted from The Donut by Michael Krondl. Copyright © 2014 Michael Krondl. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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