Zengoula with lemon syrup: A new-old Chanukah treat

The tradition of eating latkes during Chanukah is only half the story.
November 24, 2015

The tradition of eating latkes during Chanukah is only half the story. Don’t get me wrong — I love crisp potato pancakes, but there’s so much more fried deliciousness to enjoy over eight days. I’ll explain.

Latkes are traditional European fare, and a German potato pancake is simply a latke by another name. The Jews who migrated north and west into Eastern and Central Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries (after potatoes had traveled there from the New World) thought potato pancakes would make a dandy fried food to commemorate the miraculous bit of oil. 

On the other hand, if you were a Jew who lived in Babylon (Iraq) or had taken a different and much earlier migratory route into North Africa, for instance, there’d have been no potatoes and no latkes. Instead you’d have been frying up crisp, local golden pastries for your Chanukah parties.

Which brings me to zengoula, the syrup-soaked funnel cakes that have been popular for centuries throughout the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia (where they are called jalebi). Zengoula were adopted long ago by local Jews as their Chanukah food. (This raises the very interesting topic of recipe patrimony — how regional foods become associated with and claimed by different local cultures as their own.)

Zengoula are irresistible; each crunchy bite shatters to a burst of sweet syrup. If you’ve ever tackled home-fried sufganiyot (doughnuts), zengoula are so much easier and quicker to make. It takes only a few minutes and a fork to whisk up the simple cornstarch, flour and yeast batter (the cornstarch keeps the pastries crisp). Then, all you need is a resealable plastic bag and a pot of hot oil to begin the fun.

This recipe comes from my Iraqi safta — grandmother — Rachel, who could pipe perfect coils into the bubbling oil the way they do at Arab bakeries in Jaffa and Nazareth or at Tunisian bakeries in Paris. That takes practice. Free-form Rorschach-like shapes — seahorses, dolphins, geese — that magically pop up in the hot oil are just as delicious. My grandmother used to dip the funnel cakes in traditional sugar syrup. I think they’re infinitely more wonderful infused with a tart lemon syrup and adorned with long curls of fragrant citrus zest — making venerable zengoula a 21st-century Chanukah treat.



  • 1 1/8 teaspoons (1/2 package) active dry yeast
  • 1 1/4 cups warm water (100 to 110 F)
  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup cornstarch
  • Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt 



  • 2 to 3 lemons
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 quarts mild-flavored oil with a 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 of the warm water; let stand in a warm place until the mixture bubbles, about 10 minutes. 

In a medium bowl, using a fork, stir together flour, cornstarch and salt. Stir in 1/2 cup of the warm water and the yeast mixture. Then slowly stir in enough of the remaining 1/2 cup warm water until the dough is lump-free and the consistency of thick pancake batter. You should have 1 1/2 to 2 cups batter. 

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until doubled in bulk, at least 6 hours, or up to 24 hours. The dough will be loose and spongy and have a yeasty aroma.


Using a five-hole zester, remove the zest from 1 lemon in long strands. Halve and squeeze enough lemons to yield 1/3 cup 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.) 


Transfer the dough into a 1-gallon resealable plastic bag or large pastry bag fitted with a 1/4-inch plain pastry tip and set the bag in a bowl for support. Let the dough stand for about 15 minutes before frying. Line a large plate with paper towels. Place the prepared plate, tongs, a slotted spoon, the syrup, and a tray to hold the finished fritters near the stove. 

Pour oil to a depth of 3 1/2 inches into a 4- or 5-quart pot, wok or electric fryer and heat to 375 F. If using a plastic bag for the dough, snip 1/4 inch off of 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 coils or squiggles, letting gravity help push the batter out. Be careful not to crowd the pan. Fry the dough, turning once with tongs at the halfway point, until bubbled, golden and crisp, 4 to 5 minutes total. Use slotted spoon to remove the fritters from the oil, drain them briefly on the paper 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 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, loosely covered, at room temperature.

Makes 8 servings.

NOTE: A couple of 2-inch chunks of raw carrot added to the frying oil act as magnets, attracting all those little brown bits that might otherwise burn and impart an acrid taste to the oil. It’s an old-fashioned trick that works! 

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