It was ritual. Every July, during a week that always seemed like the hottest of the summer, my grandfather would gather up the family into his car and set out on a three-hour trek west to the rolling bucolic splendor of Pennsylvania Dutch country. This was the rich and bountiful farmland of his youth, most well-known for the uniquely plain-living Amish community, but also home to one of the most distinctive regional cuisines in the United States. It was there, in Lancaster County, that we would attend the farm fair extraordinaire, The Kutztown Folk Festival.
After a full day of roaming around the animal pens, craft stalls and farm demonstrations, we would buy tickets for the big-tent event, a sprawling communal dining hall where bowls and platters were cheerfully and generously served, piled high with relishes, stews, stuffings and slabs of country meats, in the folk tradition of the groaning board. Just when your stomach felt that it could endure not one bite more, out came the pies, dumplings and kuchen. It was an excessively hearty, stick-to-your-ribs meal, that left you wanting nothing ever to eat again for the rest of your life, a common practice in farm communities where the work days are gruelingly long and hard.
As much as I enjoyed sampling many famous foods like shoo-fly pie, schnitz un knepp and chow chow, it was the hand-held treat offered much earlier in the day while we were grazing the fair that fascinated and delighted me the most. The funnel cake is sweetened fry bread most distinctive in its cooking method and shape over its basic recipe, a simple pancake batter made magically laced and crispy by a quick configuration poured into a vat of bubbling, deep fat. While it bears some similarity to the equally, if not more decadent, syrup-soaked Indian jalebi, the funnel cake’s name derives from the dropping of the batter through a funnel, the end of which is blocked or opened by the cook’s fingertip as an elaborately twisted and turned design instantly rises up in the glittering oil below. Literally one minute later, you have a work of primitive art as big as a dinner plate to work through, as gleefully enjoyable to watch being made as it is to bite into.
Growing up, my mother did not usually make funnel cakes for us (they are very rich and tend to spatter), instead offering the breakfast treats of pancakes, waffles and French toast. I never complained, happy for what I had before me, and happy for what would lay before me again, another sweltering July pilgrimage to the land of my ancestors, the land of plenty, where the kitchen is always open, and the hex sign on the barn siding reads “Wilkum.”
This post is being submitted to Johanna of The Passionate Cook, host of this round of the Sugar High Friday, Going Local, created by Jennifer of The Domestic Goddess.
Funnel Cakes (my own recipe)
[Any pancake batter with leavening will work as long as it is neither too thick nor to thin and quick for pouring through an approximately ¾ inch-wide funnel spout.]
1 cup self-raising flour
¾ cup milk
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 Teaspoon vanilla extract
Flavorless oil for frying, enough to fill a skillet 2 inches deep. Skillets without non-stick finish work best.
Powdered sugar, molasses or syrup to decorate.
In a large bowl, beat all ingredients except the oil until very smooth. Heat 2 inches of oil in a skillet to 375 degrees F or until a small spoonful of batter instantly sizzles when dropped in the oil.
With your finger covering the spout, fill the funnel with batter, then position the funnel as close to the hot oil as you safely can. Starting in the center of the skillet, remove your finger from the spout and draw a spiral or other pattern with the batter as it drops into the oil. Pull away from the oil as you return your finger to cover the spout and move the funnel to the batter bowl. With a long-fork or tongs, carefully turn the cake over when the surface is well covered with bubbles, and the bottom is a medium brown. Fry other side until medium brown, then remove to drain on a paper towel. Transfer to a plate to dust with powdered sugar or drizzle with molasses or syrup.
Makes 4 approximately 9-inch cakes, depending on size of skillet and personal preference. You can make smaller cakes, but do not crowd them in the batter or they will fry unevenly.
Been There, Done That
Pennsylvania Dutch Rosina Pie