Baptizing Dough on the Theophany of Christ

Theophany Icon Decorated with Flowers

An icon of the baptism of Christ, decorated by my friend Carolyn (who points out she had some help from me and Melissa)

When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan
Worship of the Trinity was made manifest
For the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee
Calling Thee His beloved Son
And the Spirit in the likeness of a dove
Confirmed the truth of His Word
O Christ, our God, Who hath appeared and enlightened the world
Glory to Thee

Last night we celebrated an evening Liturgy for the feast of Theophany. This is similar to Epiphany, but unlike the West, our celebration focuses solely on Christ’s baptism and the appearing of the Holy Spirit. We talk a lot about the Magi during the festal period of the Nativity, so that’s over and done with for Theophany (which is a Greek word meaning “manifestation of God”). After the Liturgy for the feast, we have the Great Blessing of Water. In some areas, this means going outside and blessing a body of water – maybe we’ll do the Grand River one day! But for now, in our parish we bless spring water in a font inside the church. The people are sprinkled (or splashed, or drenched, depending on the zeal of the priest) with the holy water, given some to drink, and usually get a small bottle to take home. For the days and weeks following Theophany, the parish priest will do house blessings, also using the holy water.

There’s another Theophany tradition I just learned about last week when Father asked me if anyone in the parish knows how to make zalabia. First I had to google it. There are tons of variations, with some people using a wet dough and some using something more like bread dough, various shapes, and different toppings. The first person I contacted is my friend Nadira because I know she’s a great cook and can make just about any kind of Middle Eastern food, and whatever else she dreams up.

Nadira found a Jordanian recipe which is in Arabic. She translated it and whipped up the dough for us and the two of us, with help from her son Mutaz, tried our best to make beautifully golden-brown zalabia with just the right amount of crunch on the outside, soft on the inside, that doesn’t get soggy when the syrup is added.

Zalabia for Theophany
I can’t find any information online about why zalabia is served for the feast of Theophany, but as we were making it Nadira made the observation that we were baptizing the dough. You see, to make these little balls of fried goodness, you squeeze the wet dough up through a hole in the top of your fist, then quickly swipe it with an oiled spoon, immediately flinging it into the hot oil.

Watch the Zalabia King. When the dough hits the oil it sinks straight to the bottom, then shoots up again, rising to the top.

If you haven’t seen an Orthodox baptism, we don’t just pour water over the baby’s head – they are in the water and they get dunked (by the way, it’s also Greek tradition to completely cover the baby in oil, just like our little dough balls)!

Zalabia for Theophany
We made a large batch coated in simple syrup. Nadira added a little rosewater for flavor.

Zalabia for Theophany
Then a small batch was sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.

We did burn some of the oil not thinking about the different smoke points for different kinds of oil (we had a different kind in each pot). We also forgot to bring a thermometer, which would have been super helpful…we burned a few pieces, but I am still going to eat them 🙂 At the end we decided we need a nice deep fryer with a filter and accurate temperature gauge if we’re going to do this annually, and we are going to do this annually because who doesn’t like fried dough covered in sugar???

We will perfect our recipe and technique, maybe figure out how to make all the different shapes, and then I’ll post the recipe here before Theophany next year so maybe some of you can treat your parish, or family & friends, too.

Blessed Feast to All!