Challah and Sufganiyot in the Clouds

November 28, 2018

Winston Churchill was so impressed by Uganda during his 1907 safari that he wrote a book about it titled “My African Journey.” Published in 1908, Churchill wrote of the then-British Protectorate: “For magnificence, for variety of form and color, for profusion of brilliant life — bird, insect, reptile, beast — for vast scale — Uganda is truly the Pearl of Africa.” 

Churchill’s arduous journey took him from Mombasa and Kisumu in Kenya, across Lake Victoria and into Entebbe and Jinja in Uganda. 

Upon reaching Ripon Falls, he left “modernity” behind, walking, bicycling and canoeing until he reached Murchison Falls, the world’s most powerful waterfall. Although he continued by boat along the Nile through Uganda into Sudan to Khartoum, it was Uganda that he fell in love with. Most visitors to Uganda still do, only now, much more comfortably than Churchill did and enjoying much better food than was available in 1907.

Indeed, after living in Uganda for over a decade and having traversed the continent, I’m left breathless every time I venture outside its lively cities. A two-hour drive outside the capital Kampala’s perimeter delivers nature’s full bounty with plentiful wildlife and endless swamps of papyrus, forests and vast African plains. As a chef and founder of two of Kampala’s first Western restaurants, I’m often asked to train to various lodge staffs around the country, some with remote bush kitchens, little more than tin shacks without running water or sometimes even electricity. 

Last week, I was elated to have a four-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend free and an invitation to southwest Uganda to a remarkable award-winning lodge called Clouds, part of a five-star franchise of safari lodges in isolated locations around the country. Wildplaces camps are remote, luxurious throwbacks to a more glamorous era with personal butler service, spas, gourmet food and some of the world’s most stunning views. The brainchild of Montreal-born Pamela Kertland and her British husband, Jonathan Wright, I’d been to some other of their properties, and they never disappointed in a single detail. 

Clouds, Uganda’s highest-elevation lodge, is located near the Nkuringo trailhead, ideal for gorilla tracking. It sits on a mountaintop at an elevation of 7,000 feet overlooking the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and is ringed by active volcanoes that glow red in the night sky. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to almost half of the remaining endangered mountain gorilla populations, making it a “bucket list” destination for international tourists who buy tracking permits for a few hours of up close and personal time with these mesmerizing behemoths.

I left Kampala at daybreak on Thanksgiving and was driven seven hours until the fully paved roads gave way to gravel trails that hugged the side of the steep mountain for another two hours until I reached Clouds. 

We arrive in the afternoon under heavy black clouds hanging above the volcanoes into a breathtaking, warehouse-sized reception hall with a ceiling rimmed in Swiss chalet-style beams of wood. There is no mistake, though, that this is Africa in between the wooden sculptures and masks, I recognize the works of the most famous Ugandan painters and photographers in frames on the walls. 

I’m greeted by the young resident manager, chef Annabelle Wright, daughter of the lodge owners and a graduate of the London’s Michelin-starred Hambleton Hall and the revered Bocca di Lupo. My job is to teach her staff some American favorites in the form of bagels and doughnuts, challah for French toast and New York-style pizza dough recipe. 

That evening, dinner is eaten by candlelight and we all inhale Wright’s fresh butternut squash ravioli dressed simply in browned butter and sage from the vast garden behind the property.

The next morning, I spend the day in the kitchen with Wright hand mixing challah dough, teaching her the blessing as I braid it, and then how I turn it into sufganiyot or Hanukkah doughnuts. We decide to make a crème patisserie and, while it’s chilling in the refrigerator, I shape the remaining half of the challah dough into balls for sufganiyot. While they are rising, I paint the now-risen challah with egg wash and place it into a charcoal stove for baking (there is no thermometer-regulated oven in the kitchen). I push in the loaf and hope for the best.

After frying the sufganiyot, letting them cool and filling them with pastry cream, we garnish them with fresh borage flowers from the garden. We present them on a bed of coarse sugar to an American couple drinking champagne in the lodge. I explain the meaning of Hanukkah and the eight-day tradition of eating food fried in oil, and they proceed to taste them.

Their eyes widen at first bite. “We can’t believe we came to Uganda to eat the best doughnut we’ve ever tasted!” they exclaim. 

I bet that’s exactly what Winston Churchill would have said.

1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1 egg yolk, beaten
1/4 cup vegetable oil, plus 4 1/4 cups for frying
4 to 4 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup seedless jam or jelly, any flavor or pastry cream
Powdered sugar for garnish

To make the dough, put lukewarm water in the bowl of stand mixer. Add yeast and sugar, and stir to combine. Let the yeast mixture rest for 5 minutes.

Add the beaten eggs and egg yolk, along with 1/4 cup of oil, to the bowl and stir to combine.

While the mixer is running slowly, add the flour, salt and nutmeg, and mix until the dough comes together. Mix for 5 minutes to knead the dough well. Turn off mixer and let the dough sit in the bowl of the mixer for 15 minutes.

After the rest period, turn the dough out into a lightly oiled bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate the dough for at least 8 hours — preferably overnight.

When ready to form sufganiyot, remove dough from the fridge and portion into about 1 1/2- to 2-ounce balls, resting each on a baking paper-lined sheet tray.

Cover the doughnuts with lightly greased cling film or a cloth kitchen towel and let them rise in a warm part of the kitchen until doubled in size, or about one hour. 

To fry the doughnuts, heat the remaining vegetable oil in a pot or wok until the oil reaches 360 F on a thermometer. Carefully add a few doughnuts to the hot oil and fry until golden brown, about 1 minute per side. Use a slotted spoon to remove the doughnuts from the hot oil and place them on paper towels to absorb extra oil. 

Let the doughnuts cool completely. To fill, place filling of your choice in a plastic bag or piping bag. Using a chopstick, make a hole in the top or side of doughnut. Remove chopstick and insert the tip of the piping bag. Pipe in 2 or 3 teaspoons of jam or cream into the center of each doughnut. Sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired.

Makes about 20 sufganiyot.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef
at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co. 

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