Wednesday, February 2, 2011

An American Classic: Homemade Funnel Cakes

Roman's First Funnel Cake - homemade too. :)
This Christmas was spent in Texas, where we ate many delicious things - many homemade, many not.  While a prime rib roast (which we made twice over Christmas break) does rank high on my all-time top foods, I was reminded of another food that is also among my favorites on my Texan culinary adventures - a more humble food for the masses, country-folk fare, you might even call it.  Fair-fare, if I may be so bold: The Classic American Funnel Cake.

Funnel cakes are a funny thing.  I had a couple on my trip home to Texas, but it was the first time I'd had them since I was a child.  They are truly a "niche" food - I have never heard of anyone making funnel cakes at home because they are reserved for that special experience when you go to a carnival or fair, or Six Flags as was the case with me.  Their smell is unmistakable, and their taste even moreso.  The whole experience of the carnival music, the flimsy paper plate, and powdered sugar flying all over your face is the thing that childhood memories are made of.  Which is why I simply couldn't get them out of my head after my Christmas-time binge.

Another issue of note with funnel cakes is that they are mostly associated with middle America.  When I decided to embark on a homemade funnel cake adventure, posted that I'd be making funnel cakes on Facebook a lot of my international friends commented in puzzlement - one of them was a pastry chef, mind you - with regards to what a "funnel" cake could be.  The Brit didn't know, the Kiwi didn't know, the Thai didn't was only my fellow American friends who lauded the inclination and stated plainly they'd consider flying to Abu Dhabi if I'd make them one.

Yet, there seems to be funnel cake-esque desserts all over the world.  According to Wikipedia:

"In America, funnel cakes were originally associated with the Pennsylvania Dutch region. In Austria the equivalent is called Strauben and is made and served similarly. In Slovenian cuisine they are called flancati (pron. FLAN-tsa-tee). In Finland the analogous tippaleipä is traditionally served at May Day (Vappu) celebrations. In Ripon, North Yorkshire, it is also known as "Fennel Funnel Pie". It is also rarely called "Elephant ears".[1] In the Indian subcontinent a similar dessert is called jalebi which has a somewhat chewy texture with a crystallized sugary exterior coating; in Iran this would be known as zulbia and is a popular dessert."

Who knew?  Then again, in all honesty, I can't say I'm terribly surprised.  Funnel cakes are so good that it figures the whole world has their own recipe.  Although I can't say I'd compare jalebi to American funnel cakes, personally. :) 
A very unfortunate funnel cake sign at a fair in Austin, TX
image credit
Funnel cakes are especially good when served piping hot and shared with a loved one.  And they pair admirably well with corndogs, another one of my favorite carnival foods.  This past December we all went to the Grapevine, TX Polar Express train ride with the kids and my sister and husband.  They got to meet Santa Claus, jump in a bouncy castle, and eat corndogs and funnel cakes.  I got to talking to the old couple in the funnel cake trailer, who told me they'd been making funnel cakes at all sorts of carnivals and fairs for years.  It turns out they use a mix they buy from a wholesaler (which makes sense) and can make, they said, up to 50,000 funnel cakes in one good weekend at at Texas fair.  Pretty impressive.  At $5.00 a pop, maybe we're in the wrong business? :)

I discovered a ridiculously easy recipe online that I adapted slightly and will share below.  And please also enjoy salivating over the pictures I took - do not attempt to fry funnel cakes while simultaneously taking action shots - fair warning. :)


Homemade Funnel Cakes
Recipe adapted from this one.

Makes 5-7, 6" Cakes

They're called funnel cakes because the dough is put into a funnel and released into a deep pan of hot oil in the traditional squiggly, wiggly shapes.  It's just as much fun to do as it is to watch, I've finally discovered after all these years of standing mesmerized at the fair.
The traditional topping for a carnival funnel cake is powdered sugar, but feel free to improvise.  And remember that the cake is meant to be cake-y, not crunchy, so don't be tempted to leave it too long in the oil.

1 egg
1 cup milk
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 1/4 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder

1. Beat egg and milk. Mix all other ingredients in a separate bowl and slowly add to the egg mixture, beating until smooth.

2. When ready to fry the cakes, use a cast iron pan (a small one works perfectly) and heat about 1-2 cups of vegetable oil (depending on the size of your pan) over medium-high heat until hot.d Test the temperature by dropping a drop of dough into the hot oil - if it fries right away without smoking, it's perfect.

Note: If you make the batter ahead of time and refrigerate, make sure to mix it very well and add a little extra milk if necessary or the batter will take forever to come out of the bottom of the funnel, and your cake will burn while you are trying to pour the rest of it.

The Action Shot.
3. Using a funnel, drop into hot oil working from center outwards in a web pattern. 

4. Cook for about 2-3 minutes or until golden on both sides.  Do not overcook - funnel cakes are meant to be more soft and cake-like than crunchy.

5. Sprinkle with powdered sugar (the traditional way to eat them) or drizzle with honey, caramel, nutella and serve immediately.  They also go great with ice cream and fresh fruit!
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1 comment:

  1. Me too, and with nutella, all be still my beating heart!!