The only doughnuts I had growing up in Israel were yeasted, filled with strawberry jam and dusted with confectioners' sugar.
Perfectly plump specimens, they had an untanned line that ran around the middle of each one, visually separating deeply golden hemispheres. I saw that as a sign of being fried to perfection something that eludes me at times when I try to replicate doughnuts with that same pale stripe at home.
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 or seasonal treat. 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, D.C., 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. "All existing bakeries were either Eastern European or Middle Eastern in orientation, depending on what background the baker came from, and usually because dietary restrictions more often than not tended to be pareve, or something that contains neither meat nor dairy.
"We only used butter for our bases and fresh cream for our mousses, etc., and the freshest produce from the farmers and the best chocolate available to us."
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 miniature doughnuts filled with Meyer lemon pastry cream.
"This is my favorite," she said. "The filling I change around depending on my mood or time available. I also make a gorgeous praline version, and I prefer a flavored confectioners' sugar, say vanilla bean processed into the sugar, sifted and stored. Or orange or lemon zest dried slowly and processed to a fine powder," sifted and stored the same way.
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 crème 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?" he asked.
Guilty as charged.
Ben Ezra said that 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.