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!!” and would pull me in for a pinch of the cheeks and a bear hug miraculously strong for someone of her small stature. I clung to her because she reminded me so much of my papou. Both were strong, stubborn Saltas’. And, oh, could Aunt Mary cook for the masses!
Mary will be 103 on February 24 and is healthy as she was 80 years ago. Until recently, she lived pretty much independently in her home with her son, Father Makarios, a Greek Orthodox monk who himself lived for over a decade at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt. 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. So, about eight years ago, when Aunt Mary was only 95, I asked her to teach me how to make loukoumades (Greek honey donuts). That was the dish that launched me into this past decade of food discovery.
Loukoumades are the stickiest of all the Greek desserts. Soaked in honey, they’re golden and crispy on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside and are sometimes topped with cinnamon, chopped walnuts, sesame seeds, or drizzled in melted chocolate instead of honey. Eating loukoumades is easy if you’re willing to get your hands a little sticky. It’s the making of them that can be tricky—they require time and a good teacher to learn from.
I picked a great loukoumades teacher in Aunt Mary. All of my dad’s cousins talk about the huge Saltas family gatherings at her home when they were growing up, many of those gatherings arranged for the sole purpose of eating loukoumades. In her family’s home village of Megara, they are also called katsoubles, a word of Albanian origin. Every New Year’s Eve Aunt Mary would invite family to her house to make loukoumades. It’s a wonderful time that became a wonderful tradition, bringing in the new year smelling like fried dough, surrounded by family.
To make loukoumades, all you need are a handful of ingredients for the dough (which you probably already have in your pantry—sugar, flour, yeast, and salt), and a pot of oil to fry the dough in. Honey and the toppings of your choice round out the ingredients. The step that can be the most difficult is spooning the batter into bite sized dough balls before they reach the sizzling pot of oil. You may notice at Greek festivals and functions that a large machine is used to pump 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 hands and not a machine.
On the day of our cooking lesson, Aunt Mary showed me how to squeeze the dough batter into one hand, and spoon it out with my other hand into the pot of oil. I’ve seen others round the dough with two spoons or with an ice cream scooper, but I prefer this method. It’s easy once you get the hang of it. Aunt Mary still puts me to shame and can pump out dough balls about five times faster than my speed. I know I’ll get there. I just need to throw more loukoumades parties.
Since my Aunt Mary no longer has people over in her own kitchen for New Year’s Eve anymore, I have officially taken over for her and now I serve loukoumades to my family on New Year’s. Father Makarios comes and helps me, too, like he always did with Aunt Mary. Having a helpful hand to either turn the frying dough balls while one scoops the dough makes the process so much easier. Now, I challenge you to make your own loukoumades, the way Aunt Mary made them. Hopefully a loukoumades tradition will start in your own home for the holidays or special occasions.
- 1 package active yeast (or 1 ½ to make rise faster)
- 1 ½ cup warm water
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 to 4 cups all purpose flour
- vegetable or canola oil for frying
- 1Honey mixture and topping:
- 2 cups of honey
- ½ cup of water
- ground cinnamon
- 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 dishtowel and place the bowl in a warm place and allow to rise and double in size (1-2 hours). Look for bubbles to appear on the rising dough, this indicates that the dough is ready to be fried.
- Prepare: You need 1 large slotted metal serving spoon for removing cooked dough 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 355-365 degrees. Keep a thermometer in the pan to keep the temperature right. Adjust the heat as you go if it goes below or above that temperature.
- When the oil reaches proper temperature, place hand in dough mixture and bring out a fistful of dough and squeeze. The dough will come through thumb and index finger. Dip spoon in glass containing the vegetable oil and scoop the dough and drop into the hot oil. Do this until there are 8-10 balls frying in the hot oil. Be sure to not overcrowd.
- 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 to drain off the excess oil. 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.
- To serve, put the dough balls on a platter, drizzle with honey syrup, and dust with cinnamon. You can also sprinkle with sesame seeds or walnuts if desired.
- Serve warm to waiting guests and enjoy!