Monday, August 27, 2007

"Eat 'til it Ouches" - Funnel Cakes

A traditional distelfink hex sign. (Image: Courtesy of Flickr)

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.”

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
1 egg
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.
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.


Been There, Done That
Pennsylvania Dutch Rosina Pie


Patricia Scarpin said...

Susan, this is the first time I see/read about funnel cakes - how interesting!

Maryann said...

I am seeing funnel cakes at all the festivals in my area. Love 'em. Yours look yummy :)

Kelly-Jane said...

That's new new to me too, looks good =)

toni said...

I haven't thought about funnel cakes since Grandma Moses was painting! Thanks for the reminder.....

I think that these days I'd enjoy watching them be made as much as I ever did. I'd probably prefer to have someone to share one with, though, as opposed to when I was smaller and needed all sweets to myself! ;-)

Simona said...

Very interesting post, as usual: all those foods I didn't know about!

sra said...

You know what, I read it as Fennel Cakes! Looks lovely!

Shaun said...

Susan, lovie - I have never had a funnel cake before. Are its culinary roots coddled in Germany or elsewhere? I love the idea of going whole hog and pouring molasses on top of the funnel cakes - I love blackstrap molasses! In all, this seems a no-fuss though wide smile-inducing way to start the day.

Nora B. said...

Hi Susan, a wonderful entry for SHF. I did think of jalebi when I was reading your post. The Kutztown Folk Festival sounds like a lot of fun and it's good that the festival continues to be a popular event. Do you still go every year?

thepassionatecook said...

what a curious, curious sweet. i love your description of the fair, i am sure i would have enjoyed it just as much as you did. wonderful. pancake through a funnel... you gotta think of that! just brilliant. can't be beaten. thanks for sharing this with us!

Lucy said...

Knowing so little of the Pennsylvanian Dutch, this post has me running to all of your links Susan, following such a fascinating history. Those Hex signs are rather fabulous things.

rahin said...

hey susan the folk festival description is very interesting ....thanks for sharing ...the funnel cakes look v gud

Truffle said...

These look fantastic. Sounds delicious too. Your pictures are simply gorgeous!

Susan said...

Patricia – I feel the same way when I read about many of your Brazilian treats.
Thanks, Maryann. They’ve become something of a staple at festivals (at least in NY/NJ/PA), though I don’t know if any street sweet will surpass cotton candy!
Thanks, Kelly-Jane. They are easy and a lot of fun to make as long as you respect the hot oil.
Toni – It’s been ages for me, too. If SHF wasn’t featuring local/regional sweets, I don’t know that I would have fired up the cast iron skillet just yet. These are certainly rich enough to share; one could easily feed two people.
Thank you, Simona. There’s always something new for any of us food bloggers to discover. It’s one of the many reasons why I enjoy reading blogs.
Thanks, Sra. LOL! You know, of course, that somewhere on the planet there are "fennel" cakes being served this very minute!
Hi, Shaun. Nearly every culture has a fry bread of sorts, yet only a few that I know of have their own version of funnel cakes. I do suspect the Pennsylvania Dutch were inspired by the German pretzel’s shape when these were first created in farm kitchens. If you go the blackstrap molasses route, I’d suggest very strong black coffee as a foil for it. (Of course, you would like molasses, gingerbread man that you are. : ))
Thanks, Nora. I haven’t been to the Kutztown Festival for many, many years. My grandfather is no longer with us; it wouldn’t be the same without him.
Thank you very much, Johanna. I’m glad the entry works so well for SHF’s theme. It brings back many happy memories.
Hi, Lucy. I love the Hex signs, too – the old world German way of keeping away the evil eye! The austere Amish, however, never adorn their communities with them; they are considered too fancy.

Anrosh said...

The first time I had funnel cake was a cafe in universal studios in 2003. I was hungry and relished it for lunch. As I was eating, there were some who came up to me and asked "what was i eating"

Nora B. said...

Susan, I'm sorry to hear about your grandfather. It's great that your memories of him are very much alive.

Nanditha Prabhu said...

it was nice to read about the description you gave of the fair !
jalebi is my favorite sweet and this funnel cake holds a resemblence!!!

Anh said...

Susan, you have enlightened me! funnel cake, how lovely!

Rosa said...

Sounds dramatic - my son will love this! Canadians are allowed to serve it with maple syrup, I hope!

ayseyaman said...

I have never heard funnel cake before . Your post, your memerios and recipes are very nice and interesting!
Also I am sorry to hear your grandfather is no longer with you.

Susan said...

Hi, Anrosh. Everyone is intrigued by a funnel cake. It's no wonder others asked what you were eating.
Nora, thank you. My grandfather has been gone twenty years already, but the memories are just as fresh as yesterday.
Nanditha - It is the rare occasion when I see jalebi offered at my favorite Indian buffet, but when I do, I ALWAYS leave room for extra dessert.
Thank you, Ahn. I'm glad you enjoyed it.
Hi, Rosa. Yes, kids definitely take to this kind of treat, and there will be no arrest warrant out for anyone who chooses maple syrup!
Thank you, Ay┼če. The memoir posts are the easiest to write and give the most pleasure, even if they are bittersweet.

Sandeepa said...

Just saw your comment. When are you going to Maine ? Is it for your anniv. ?
We were up there too, at Bar Harbour. Beautiful place and a very relaxed lifestyle. Very good food too. Try the lobster crepes at Maggie's. Do you know the place, if not let me know. I will get the address for you.

Didn't know about the festival at L County. We had been there last year and I had brought back a good amount of preserves, jams etc.

The funnel cake looks good but with all that powdered sugar(the ones I have eaten) it tends to get sweet and heavy

Christina said...

Although my father's family is from Lancaster County and we used to go there for reunions and other events when I was little, it wasn't there that I first encountered funnel cakes. Nope, I had them at the Minnesota State Fair. Oh yum. I loved them then, but now I love them even more because there is a teacher at my school who, for every school festival or club event, makes funnel cakes as a fundraiser and they are the lightest, most perfect balance of eggy tenderness and fried crunch that I have ever had. Heavenly. I can't wait to try your recipe (sometime when it isn't 574 degrees Fahrenheit outside, like it is today)! I bet your recipe will put his to shame.

Susan said...

Hi, Sandeepa! Yes, it is for our 1st anniversary. We stayed at Blue Hill last year, and will stay there again at a different B&B, more spa oriented), with a last day and night in Castine. I'm crazy for the wild, rough surf of Hancock County's rock-bound coast. We went chiefly for Acadia (so we do know Bar Harbour - had the BEST crab roll there), but would love to try Maggies. We are leaving on Saturday and plan to spend every waking moment back at Acadia. I have a lot to do before we head off, but if I can get my act together, I will post about last year's trip with a crab roll recipe thrown in for good and tasty measure. I hope you had a lovely time. Would LOVE to hear about your travels.

You are quite right about funnel cakes; they are so rich and crispy, you really don't need much sugar on them; it's like gilding the lily, but a matter of personal taste.
Dear Christina, how lovely that you are part PD. So, it's 574 F, so much hotter than book burning (a sacrilege to you and me both). Yes, I suggest you wait until things cool down a bit. ; )

Truffle said...

Happy Anniversary! What a fascinating post. I think I'd love these.

Mishmash ! said...

Susam, U made funnel cakes?? WOW! they re my fav next to elephant ears ofcourse :) and u re right about its similarity with Indian jalebi's. I once visited an amish county and came back with lots of yummy jams and marmalades..:)

Hey, btw, I missed your last two doesnt show up in my Reader anymore...any idea wht?


dani said...

I love funnel cakes, just saw on CBS Sunday News this weekend the special on the Iowa State Fair and when they showed funnel cakes I remarked to the husband how much I loved them and hadn't had one in years! (Lllooovvvee shoo-fly pie too. Have relatives in Pennsylvania who always have it!)

TBC said...

I've never heard of funnel cakes before. They look so good & seem pretty simple to make too.

Susan said...

Thank you, Truffle. The year really spun by. I'm tempted to make these for our celebratory sweet, but I know we'll have to get that hunk of cake out of the freezer.
Hi, Shn. I'll bet you were loaded down with jars and jars of home-made jams. Farm folk tend to lay in well-stocked larders during their lean seasons; preserving sweet and savory produce is a given.

This is first I've heard of an RSS problem. Don't know what it could be. Perhaps if you re-load as ATOM? Please let me know if the issue continues. Tech stuff - the headaches!
Hi, Dani! Sorry I missed the CBS segment; I know the fairs use some fairly complicated commercial equipment. Glad you like shoo-fly pie. I have a general preference for the wet-bottom kind, myself.
Hi, TBC. Funnel cakes are very easy to make and even easier to eat, though a little goes a long way.

Sandeepa said...

A very Happy Anniv. dear.
I had intended to do a Maine post but will not get it out before you leave, so suggesting two more places.

Did you try the Morning Star Bakery ? A small place but they have box lunches which you can take on your hike. They bake their bread etc. at the place and it is very good.

Another place we liked is Rupunini, we were very attracted by the name. But Maggi'es is better with their lobster crepes

Have loads of fun and make beautiful memories

Mandira said...

Susan, your description and the festivities reminded me of jalebis :) looks great!

bee said...

that looks so gourmet, not like fair food. lovely post.

Susan said...

Thank you, dear Sandeepa. I'd be attracted to a placed called Rupunini, too. Can't wait to read your Maine post. Thanks for all your suggestions. We'll take lots of photos.
Thanks, Mandira. Funnel cakes are just as addictive as jalebis, too.: }
Thanks, Bee. Serving it on a nice plate helps its image.

Mansi Desai said...

these are pretty!! i had strawberry and sugar dusted cakes at disney world and since then I've been a fan!!

Susan said...

Hi, Mansi. I'd heard they were popular at Disney. The strawberries sound like a sweet and colorful addition.

Nora Bee said...

I know this is not your most recent post (I'm posting this in 2008), but I found it through food blog search and just have to tell you that I also had a tradition of going to the Kutztown Folk Festival. What fun! And the funnel cakes, what a nice memory. MMMM.