Mary Saltas Mannos was just 76 years old when I was born. She’s my papou Pete Saltas’ older sister, making her my great aunt. My papou had seven siblings and Aunt Mary was the first Saltas born in the United States, in 1915. Whenever I visited Aunt Mary, she would welcome me on her front porch with her arms extended and a beaming smile, shouting a high pitched “ELENI!!” pulling me in for a pinch of the cheeks and a bear hug amazingly strong for someone of her small stature. I clung to her because she reminded me so much of my Papou Saltas, who passed away in 2005. Both were strong, stubborn Saltas.’ And, oh, could Aunt Mary cook!
Mary turned 103 on February 24, 2018. Until her 100th birthday she remained as healthy as she was 80 years ago, and lived pretty much independently in her home with her son, Father Makarios, a Greek Orthodox monk (who now serves at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Mount Sinai, Egypt—but that’s another story). At her house on her 100th birthday, she was the one serving people coffee and treats for her centenarian celebration. She was the one making sure everyone else had a seat. It’s no wonder I have always wanted to be so much like her. And emulation has its blessings.
About eight years ago, when Aunt Mary was only 95, I asked her to teach me how to make LOUKOUMADES. These amazing, challenging, devastatingly delicious donuts launched me into this past decade of food discovery. And blogging. And cooking every chance I get. And meeting all of you.
Loukoumades (loo-koo-MAH-thes) are the stickiest of all the Greek desserts. Soaked in honey, they’re golden and crispy on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside, and can be topped with cinnamon, chopped walnuts, sesame seeds, or drizzled with even more honey or melted chocolate. Eating loukoumades demands sticky hands. Making them can be tricky—they require time and a really good teacher.
Aunt Mary was special. Every New Year’s Eve, she invited the family to her house for loukoumades. All of my dad’s cousins talk about their huge Saltas family gatherings at her home, centered on making and eating loukoumades. In the Saltas home village of Megara, they are also called katsoubles. Her holiday treats became a wonderful tradition, bringing in the new year smelling like fried dough, surrounded by family.
You may notice at Greek festivals and functions that a large machine pumps out mass amounts of dough balls into an even larger pot of oil. I was taught to make loukoumades the Aunt Mary method, by the use of my two hands. On the day of our cooking lesson, Aunt Mary showed me to place my hand into the batter, grab ahold of some of the sticky mixture in my palm and squeeze tightly. Out came a ball of dough between my thumb and index finger. Then, holding a teaspoon in my clean hand, I scooped the dough into the spoon and immediately dropped it into the hot oil. I’ve seen other cooks round the dough with two spoons or with an ice cream scooper, but I prefer this method. If I told you it’s easy, I’d be lying. But this method becomes easy once you get the hang of it. My Aunt Mary put me to shame—she could pump out dough balls five times faster than I. Emulation, that’s where it’s at. I know I’ll get there. I just need to throw more loukoumades parties. And throw them, I will.
Now I also serve loukoumades to my family and guests on New Year’s Eve. Having helpful hands to turn the frying dough balls while scooping the dough makes the process so much easier. Loukoumades are best made by two. Find yourself a cooking partner and join a fine Greek tradition.
Dedicated to my Aunt Mary Saltas Mannos, 1915-2018.
- 1 package active yeast (or 1 ½ for faster rising)
- 1 ½ cup warm water
- 3 to 4 cups all-purpose flour
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Vegetable or canola oil for frying
- 2 cups of honey
- ½ cup of water (if you are using thick honey)
- Ground cinnamon for garnish
- Sesame seeds or chopped walnuts (optional)
- Dissolve yeast and salt in lukewarm water. Make sure the yeast becomes bubbly or creates foam.
- Place flour and sugar in large mixing bowl and pour in the yeast mixture. Add 1 cup of warm water and mix ingredients with wire whisk until smooth. Dough should be loose and sticky, not stiff or firm. If dough is too stiff, add a bit more water.
- Cover bowl with plastic wrap and a dish towel and place the bowl in a warm place. Allow to rise and double in size (1-2 hours). Look for bubbles on the rising dough, this indicates that the dough is ready.
- Prepare: You need 1 large slotted metal serving spoon for removing cooked donuts from oil, a small drinking glass filled with vegetable oil, a tablespoon or small spoon, and a large flat dish covered with paper towels to absorb oil from fried dough.
- Fill medium-sized pot a quarter of the way with vegetable oil and heat to 360 degrees. Keep a thermometer in the pan and continually adjust the heat as you go, keeping it between 355 and 365 degrees.
- When the oil reaches proper temperature, reach into dough mixture, bring out a fistful of dough and squeeze. The dough will come through thumb and index finger. Dip the spoon in the glass containing the vegetable oil, scoop the dough from your hand, and drop into the hot oil. Do this until there are 8-10 balls frying in the hot oil. Be sure you don’t overcrowd them.
- Use a slotted spoon to turn and cook evenly. When balls are golden brown, remove them from hot oil with slotted spoon and place on dish with paper towels. Repeat this process until all dough is used up.
- To make the honey syrup, heat honey and water in a small saucepan. Heat and stir at low temperature until just warm. If your honey squeezes or pours easily, you needn't do this step.
- To serve, put the dough balls on a platter, drizzle with honey or honey syrup and dust with cinnamon. You can also sprinkle with sesame seeds or walnuts if desired.
- Serve warm to waiting guests.