“Iwas nervous about putting myself out there. I just put a little post on two social media sites. A few people responded. Then a local TV reporter saw one of the posts and wanted to do a story. It happened so quickly. They aired my story on what was the first night of Hanukkah and immediately I got dozens of orders. It was the first time I put my pastries out for sale and suddenly I was working a lot. Everybody wanted them.”
Victoria Nam says she researched and experimented making sufganiyot (pronounced SOOF-gah-knee-yoht), a traditional Eastern European jelly-donut treat for the eight days of Hanukkah, simply to please her fiancé, Brian, and his Jewish family. “I wanted to feed him like his grandmother. When he said I was even better, it gave me focus. I really wanted to learn to do more.”
Since the Festival of Lights holiday celebrates the miracle of burning oil, its foods are often fried in it. She’d already mastered the famous potato latkes (pancakes) along with other well-known Jewish foods like challah, matzoh balls and chopped liver, so she was looking for something new. Mention of a jelly-filled fried donut piqued her interest. With a bit of experimentation and a lot of determination, she mastered the technique. Then she went one step further: She turned the pastry into something new: a tribute to both her fiancé and her adopted state of Maine.
“Sufganiyot go back to Central Europe in the 1600s,” she says. “Fried dough goes back way before that. What people made with it was savory, filled with meats, vegetables and mushrooms. It wasn’t until the colonization of the Caribbean islands in the 1500s that cheap slave-produced sugar was introduced into the mainstream and increased capacity for affordable jams and sweet pastries. Sweetened fried dough gained popularity all across Europe and proliferated further after the early 20th century invention of the mass-production jelly-injecting machine. The donuts came to the Middle East with the 1920s European immigration to what was then known as Palestine. Today, in that part of the world, they are typically made with strawberry filling.
“Commercial yeast was only introduced 150 years ago, so I imagine bakers used a sourdough culture in the dough to make it rise,” Nam says. “Yet, I didn’t find many or actually any specific sourdough recipes for this particular donut. But eventually, I came across a recipe with yeast, and adapted it to include exclusively sourdough starter.”
That was bingo! What’s called sourdough is created by allowing a flour/water mix to ferment slowly through contact with natural yeast in the air. This most traditional—and slowest—way of making bread became wildly popular during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic when many quarantined people were desperately searching for something new to do. Nam, laid off from her job in Portland, was no exception—except she was. She had been trained and worked as a professional baker, 10 years a pastry chef.
“I studied at the L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Maryland. It was a really good school, very French. I learned all the basics although before that I had been working in bakeries. It was expensive but worth it. We learned by repetition, repetition, repetition ... doing it over and over until we got it perfect. We had to understand how things work and how to get the outcome we wanted. I was there eight to nine hours a day. We started at 6am. I was terrified to be reprimanded especially by the French, who are certain there is only one right way. The exams were so hard, nobody could ever get an A.
“My first job after that was at the bistro in the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, DC. I lasted a year. I had learned about WWOOF, Worldwide Organization for Organic Farms. I signed up and I spent a year and a half working on farms in France, Italy and Japan—six months in each country. I started out doing basic farm work, planting and weeding, but when they found out I could cook, they asked me to cater for all the workers. So I ended up cooking the farm’s food.
“In Japan, I had to use whatever they had on the farm. Not having a grocery store to run to forced me to get creative with the meals. I began to see how much we waste here. I always like to talk about my time in Japan because it so deeply influences me. I grew up in Maryland with a Safeway as our food source and suddenly I had to use only farm-fresh food. Maine has so many wonderful farmers now, and all the grain being grown here is very exciting. It’s why I started baking again.
“I lived in the [San Francisco] Bay Area for a few years, working sometimes in restaurants. Also, I worked with farmers there too and learned more about food and flavor. But my fiancé and I are both East Coast people, so we decided to come back to be closer to family and moved to Portland. I was offered pastry chef jobs but I was pretty burned out. The professional kitchen is such a masculine environment, all about showing off your machismo. I needed a long break to figure out where I fit into it. So I took an administrative job with a home repair company. Then because the company was faltering, I got laid off.
“I got a part-time job in Yarmouth in textiles and I started to embroider a lot. It was like making pastry: You work intensely with your hands. I wanted to have an Etsy shop, but a job came up at the bakery Belleville on Munjoy Hill. The prep cook left a few weeks after I started, so I said, ‘I can do that.’ I made sauces and frangipane for the pastries. I was getting into the groove when the pandemic closed everything down.
“There was no work anywhere. I began baking at home to keep myself focused and engaged, experimenting because nobody was hanging over me watching. I could do whatever I wanted. No restrictions! It was very liberating. I started baking things I had never made before. Like a lot of people, I began exploring sourdough. It got me in a good groove and I was baking every day. I was making so much, I was giving it away to friends, neighbors, family. Then my unemployment checks stopped. And there were no jobs.
“It was early December. The holidays were happening. I knew I was going to make Hanukkah dishes for my fiancé. I had all this sourdough I kept producing, so I thought I’d try making the donuts with it. I wanted to create a very light and fluffy dough that had a delicate crispy exterior and a tangy flavor that would hold up well to a sweet filling. The process of working with sourdough takes three days but the results are divine! The dough develops a lot of complex flavors and tiny air pockets that fry beautifully. I worked on the recipe a bit, adding more bread flour and other things until it became my donut. It was definitely a labor of love but one worth the smiling faces on my family.
“I knew the standard filling was strawberry jelly, but I thought: ‘This is Maine and I’ve been making apple butter, a lot of apple butter, so I am going to try that.’ I’ve fallen in love with Maine apples. They are so different from what I had in Maryland and California. They are so much tastier, so full of character and flavor. I’ve gone apple picking every autumn we’ve been here and then I make apple butter, a big batch! I serve it with my potato latkes instead of the more traditional applesauce, so I thought why not try it in the donuts too? It was a perfect match: sweet, sour, caramelization.
“With all the orders that poured in, I ran out of homemade apple butter, so I started filling the donuts with chocolate. I’m still making them with chocolate but experimenting with new fillings until apples come back in season. I’m thinking about blueberries because they’re so Maine and they’re available frozen all year round now. I just don’t want them to be a cliché. I’m also trying to expand my sourdough repertoire. I’m working on a focaccia, a loaf and brioche. I really, really love brioche and its variations. I just tried it as hamburger buns.
“I figured I have the time now and the skill, and people really like the donuts, so why not be in the pastry business in my house as a cottage industry? I want to move away from mass-produced industrial flour and ingredients. As much as possible, I want to source organic products from regional farmers and small-scale millers like Maine Grains. I want what I make to be as elegant and innovative as the food in Japan.
“I’ve always enjoyed the process of baking and cooking. Laborious as it is, I find it deeply satisfying, a very personal way to connect with people I care about. Using my skills to nourish my community makes the labor worth it. I love to share.”
. . .
Victoria Nam will be open for pickup/takeout from her Portland residence. She will continue to offer her special sourdough donuts and hopes to offer brioche, focaccia and other sourdough breads with them. She has set up online ordering and a new website. Her main method of communication about what’s available on which day will be via those social media sites whose enthusiastic readers gave her the courage to not be nervous any more.
. . .
When I’m craving a quick sweet treat, I make a batch of churros, a crispy fried confection popular in Spain and Latin America. The Spaniards like to eat them for breakfast, lunch or as a midday snack, which I wholeheartedly recommend. This recipe uses a pâte à choux dough made with cake flour instead of all-purpose, which gives the churros a very light and airy texture (but you can use all-purpose if that’s all you have). I highly recommend using a kitchen scale as it’s more accurate than measuring cups or spoons, allows you to adjust proportions easily and you’ll have fewer dishes to wash.
Yield: 4–5 dozen small churros
Cook + Prep Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
For the pâte à choux
⅓ cup whole milk (78
⅓ cup water (78 grams)
½ teaspoon kosher salt (3 grams)
1 teaspoon granulated sugar (4 grams)
½ stick unsalted butter (70 grams)
¾ cup cake flour or all-purpose flour (88 grams)
3 large eggs (125–170 grams)
You will also need about 3 cups of a fry oil such as peanut, sunflower or vegetable. Avoid canola as it gives off a fishy odor.
For the churros sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1–3 teaspoons ground cinnamon (You can use just about any spice you’d like to flavor your sugar. Ground cinnamon is classic but ground cardamom, ginger and nutmeg are also fine choices. Or try adding dried fruit like ground strawberries, blueberries or raspberries.)
To make the pâte à choux
In a medium saucepan, heat the milk, water, salt, sugar and butter on medium-low until all the butter has melted, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt. Turn up the heat to high and bring to a rolling boil. Immediately dump in all the flour and turn down the heat to medium. Using a wooden spoon, stir the mixture vigorously until it comes together and forms a ball. It will clump and fall apart slightly but will come together as you stir. Once the pan starts to sizzle slightly, stir for another minute and then take off the heat. Dump into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium-high for about 2–4 minutes, until the dough begins to cool and there is very little steam coming out of the bowl.
While that’s paddling, crack your eggs into a small bowl and whisk to thoroughly combine. Once the dough has cooled slightly, turn down the speed to medium and gradually pour in ⅓ of the egg mixture. Beat for about 1 minute, until the dough becomes smooth again, and then add another ⅓ of the egg. Beat again for another minute, until it’s smooth.
For the last portion of the egg, you’ll need to add a little at a time, until the dough reaches the proper consistency. To check, turn off your mixer, detach the paddle, and stir it around until it’s coated with the dough. Slowly lift the paddle straight up. If the dough at the bottom of the paddle falls in a smooth pointed shape, then it’s ready. If it’s very scraggly or breaks, you need to add more egg. If you run out of egg and the dough is still breaking, you can add some warm water 1 tablespoon at a time.
Pipe the churros
A lot of recipes will tell you to pipe your dough into hot oil to fry them, but I like to pipe and freeze them first. They’re much easier to handle this way and you’ll get consistent sized churros. It also allows you to make a lot in advance until you’re ready to fry.
While still warm, fill a pastry bag fitted with a round star tip about ¾ full. If you don’t have a pastry bag, you can use a zip-top bag with a corner snipped off to make a hole. Cover your stand mixer bowl with a lid or plate so the remaining dough doesn’t dry out.
Grab a sheet tray and pipe a tiny bit of dough onto the 4 corners of the pan, to prevent the paper from lifting while you pipe, then place a piece of parchment on top.
Hold your pastry bag just above the pan at a 45° angle and begin piping. Keeping a constant pressure, allow the dough to fall onto the pan instead of dragging the tip. This will give you plumper and more even churros. Pipe 2- to 3-inch logs and try to work pretty fast. As the mixture cools, it will stiffen up and be harder to pipe. If you don’t feel like piping, you can also scoop the dough into little balls. Make sure to use a very small scoop, though, about the size of a melon baller, to ensure the inside cooks the same time as the outside.
Freeze until churros are completely solid, about 30 minutes. If you’re not ready to fry them yet, transfer the churros to a zip-top bag or other container and keep in the freezer.
Fry the churros
In a medium bowl, whisk the granulated sugar with the ground cinnamon and set aside.
Fill roughly half of a large Dutch oven, pan or wok with oil and heat to 350°F. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can test the oil by dropping a small chunk of the dough into the oil. You’ll know it’s ready when tiny bubbles form around the dough. Carefully drop your frozen churros into the oil and swish them around with a slotted spoon or chopstick so they don’t stick to each other. Fry for about 2 minutes on each side, or until dark golden brown. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the churros to a sheet pan lined with paper towels to drain.
Toss the churros in the sugar. Enjoy with hot chocolate, whipped cream, or alongside a strong cup of coffee.
Fried churros should be eaten immediately. They will start to lose their crispness and get soggy after a few hours. But you can keep them in a sealed container at room temperature for a day. Once the logs are frozen, they will keep in the freezer for weeks.