Full disclosure: I'm not a doughnut person. I'm a bagel people. Salty breakfasts only. Going a step further, Hanukkah-wise, I'm not a sufganiya person. I'm a latke person. Onions, oil, salt, and applesauce are the way to celebrate.
But here's where it gets complicated. I'm a bread person. And I like a bread project. And doughnuts are bread. No, really. Hear me out. It's a glutenous brioche dough, risen, and cooked. Sure, it achieves it's final inner bake through the magic of a deep-frier, but at the end of the day, it's a bread.
So how can we elevate the literal grease ball that is the Hanukkah doughnut just a little bit? Any millennial with the Tartine cookbook could guess it: fermentation! Levain baking! But what's the point of naturally leavening our ponchki instead of using fast-acting yeast? Here is what a slow ferment is going to offer us:
1. Longer shelf-life. When you bake with levain (sourdough), you create a product that retains moisture longer than a yeasted item. This is one of the reasons why many bakers combine yeast and levain, even if they're not going for a full-natural ferment. However, this is a useless reason to naturally ferment doughnuts. Everyone knows doughnuts should be eaten immediately.
2. Flavors and aromas. Ok, now we're getting somewhere. Brioches, challahs, and sweet breads made with Levain develop a gentle aroma that complements the slightly sweet flavor of the dough in ways that yeast doesn't. But don't worry, these aren't going to be sour like a slow-developed country loaf might be.
3. Digestibility. Even if you're working with a nice organic flour, chances are you're still baking with a white modern wheat. Fermentation helps you digest. Promise.
4. Nerdy project. Doing things with sourdough is fun and a little magical. That's why I'm bothering.
All-Levain Pounchkis Recipe
(Timing suggestions and sourdough FAQ at bottom)
400g T55 (France), 550 Weizenmehl (Germany), all-purpose flour (Elsewhere)
160g warm water
200g all-white levain (refreshed about 6 hours prior)
30g neutral oil
4 egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla
In the bowl of your mixer, mix together flour, sugar, and salt. You should be using the paddle attachment at this point. In a separate bowl, whisk together your warm water and levain. With the mixer on low speed, mix the water-levain mixture and then the eggs and oil, into the dry ingredients. When fully incorporated, switch to the dough hook and kneed on low for 9 minutes. Turn up to medium speed for two more minutes.
Remove dough from the mixing bowl and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. You'll notice the dough is stretchier and less sticky than when you started mixing. This is because you've developed a nice gluten network. Ball the dough gently and put it seam-side down into a lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic, a plate, a damp cloth, whatever you've got. Now set it aside for 4-5 hours. Timing will vary depending on the strength of your starter and the ambient temperature.
The dough will be ready when it holds a finger print.
Now turn it out onto a well-floured work surface and roll to about 1cm thickness. Using round cookie cutters or a large water glass, cut out round circles. Remove the excess dough. Now cover the rounds with plastic or a damp cloth (just be careful about sticking), and allow to rise for 1-1.5hours.
When the rounds have almost finished their rising, start heating up your oil on the stove. You'll only need about 5 cm of oil in a pot and you should bring it up to about 170 degrees celsius. When the oil is hot, throw in your dough and watch it puff. Cook it to a rich brown on each side, lest your ponchkis not be cooked through enough.
Strain the oil with a slotted spatula or spoon as you remove them from the oil and set on old newspapers. When they've cooled a bit, sieve powdered sugar on top and pipe your favorite jam directly into the middle.
Eat them hot!
Some notes on timing and sourdough.
Sourdough baking is all about timing. I sometimes prefer it due to the long periods of rest between each step. Slower gratification but easier to schedule. In this recipe, we use a high percentage of levain to boost the speed a bit, but you can cut it down and do an even longer ferment.
For this recipe, the sourdough, or levain, that you use, should be a fairly liquid one, or 100% hydration. This means that by weight, you have equal parts flour and water. To prepare your sourdough for this recipe, take one spoonful of a mature starter (don't have one? Your friends probably do. Or go to your favorite bakery and ask for a small amount. Finally, if you're in for a long process, start your own) and mix with 100g organic flour (same that you'll be using for your bake) and 100g warm water. Use organic not just because of the ecological and health implications, but because it has more for the natural yeasts of the mature starter to feed on. This means more activity and a better rise!
If you want to eat your pounchkis in the morning:
Day before: Refresh your levain mid-afternoon. Around 2-3pm for a 10pm bedtime. Before bed, mix up your dough and set it to rest overnight. It'll rise a bit longer than the recipe suggested, but this is no crisis like it would be were you to use yeast.
Morning of: Roll out your dough, cut, rest an hour, fry, eat!
If you want to eat your pounchkis in the evening:
Night before: Refresh your levain.
Morning of: Mix your dough and leave to ferment 4-5 hours. If you feel the timing is off and you want to delay the frying a bit, throw the dough in the fridge. This will slow down the fermentation. If you do this, you'll need to let the ponchki rise a bit longer after they've been cut. Either way, when dough is ready, roll out, cut, rise, and fry!