On the list of reasonable Thanksgiving appetizers, a bucket full of donuts would seem to rank right down there with a full pre-meal turkey or a Domino's pizza. Anything heavier that crudités and a plate of cheese and crackers, and your guests will surely end up pushing around their mashed potatoes listlessly, barely nibbling at the turkey you spent hours trussing. The sane thing is to give them a glass of wine and a few mini-quiches.
But as Benjamin Franklin and Paula Deen would affirm, there is no fun in eating sanely. Thanksgiving is the blissful beginning of the Eating and Gorging Season, in which the first batches of Christmas cookies are broken out, dinnertime is scheduled for 4 p.m. as to extend the eating into several incremental meals, and sanity gets tossed aside like a wishbone. Yearly, my grandmother requests the turkey neck to eat, and that request is always granted.
Everyone's holiday traditions vary by family, and mine is no stranger to unusual rituals and specifically requested cuisines. But by far, the most important dish—the one Thanksgiving would simply not be Thanksgiving without—is a big bowl full of scuppels, set neatly in the center of the table as an appetizer for the main meal.
Scuppels are a regional Philadelphia donut with origins in Italy that no one outside of my family eats. They are the dense appetizer to a long evening of drinking and dining, and they are perfect.
I have searched the ends of the earth to try to find the origin of these donuts. Research I did suggested that there were two other people in the world who have made these donuts, and I can't find either of them anymore. One was on Tumblr.
Unlike zeppole or bombolone, scuppels are multi-faceted and bi-purpose. When cooked on the day of, they are light and fluffy and donut-esque like a typical yeast donut should be. Served the next day, though, they become bread-like and dense, making them heavier but equally delicious. They are dotted with raisins and covered in sugar, and, strangest of all, they are made into a rope-knot shape similar to a breast cancer awareness ribbon.
My family has been making them for generations; I do not remember a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner that wasn't precursored by three or four scuppels. But no one can explain where they came from.
My grandmother's history of scuppels, which she's been making since she was a "married woman," as to take over for her mother, is nebulous. One potential origin is with her great-grandfather, who owned a vineyard in Italy near Abruzzo. When the business began to fail, he sent his son to France to work at a different vineyard, where he met and married the owner's daughter. "We have a little French in us, " she told me. "Maybe that's where they came from." In the recipe that my grandmother has, handwritten by my great-grandmother, the donuts are called scaupels.
There are also close variations: crispelles (from Calabria) and scrippelles (from Abruzzo), representing both regions that my grandmother's side of the family is from. But neither comes any closer to what scuppels actually are, outside of being fried dough. Scrippelles are eaten at Christmas and are common among New Jersey/Philadelphian families, but are crepe-shaped and without raisins and eaten in soup. This recipe for crispelles calls for sultanas, but it is sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and appears to be more like a fritter.
I have never found a single person who did not like scuppels, whatever they are or wherever they came from. When I asked my mom why we don't make them any other time but Thanksgiving and Christmas, she shrugged. My grandmom says she used to make them at Easter, too. They are delicious and keep relatively well—three or four days and they're still good—and they are the perfect carb-heavy accompaniment to any holiday meal. Please chime in in the comments if you or your family has ever made them.
The following recipe should yield about 30 donuts.
2 packets of yeast
6 cups of flour
1 tablespoon of salt
2 cups of raisins
2 tablespoons of canola or vegetable oil
additional canola or vegetable oil for frying
2 to 3 cups of white sugar
Making the Dough
- Fill a medium sized bowl with roughly one cup of water that's hot but not scalding to the touch.
- Add a tablespoon of sugar and stir. Sprinkle two packets of yeast on top, stir again.
- Let stand for ten minutes until layer of froth begins to bubble on top.
- In separate large steel bowl, mix flour, salt, and two tablespoons of olive oil.
- Pour water-and-yeast mixture into flour mixture and stir together until dough starts to come together. Add more water until dough is moist and somewhat sticky.
- Add two cups of raisins and mix. If the dough feels dry or crumbly, add more hand-hot water. (It should be soft and easy to knead.)
- Knead dough for 8 to 10 minutes. Clean out bowl thoroughly and coat with olive oil. Place dough ball back in slick bowl, coating dough with oil as well, and cover with plastic wrap. Let dough rise until it meets the top of the plastic, or until it doubles in size.
Frying the Donuts
- Pull a meatball-size lump of dough from the mix and roll it out with your hands, pressing the line into a ribbon shape. Try to keep raisins tucked into the dough so they do not burn. Do this for the entire batch of dough.
- Fill a medium size bowl with granulated sugar for dipping.
- Fill a large skillet with about two inches of vegetable or canola oil. Turn heat on medium-high and let oil heat up. (You can test how hot your oil is by tossing a piece of dough in—if it sinks at first and then rises in about 2 to 3 seconds, you should be ready.)
- Drop a few donuts in the pan together and watch them closely. With a slotted spoon, tip each donut slightly to see if the bottom is golden-brown. When the donuts reach a honey-gold-to-brown color, flip over.
- When the second side is browned, remove donuts from pan and put in bowl of sugar, covering every inch of the donut.
- Store in a container lined with parchment paper.
- Eat by the dozens with no shame.
[Photos by Dayna Evans]