In my neck of the woods, county and state fairs, block parties, carnivals and street fairs usually have at least one funnel cake vendor in the mix. Nothing says “Pennsylvania Dutch” and “Coal Region” like waiting in line for a hot, sweet, funnel cake.
Although I like to think I discovered this sweet treat through my prowess as a 5-year-old in the early 60’s at the annual homecoming event in a neighboring town, in reality a recipe for what resembles today’s funnel cakes was published in a German cookbook in 1879.
The Pennsylvania Dutch connection
Funnel cakes appeared at the (now-famous) Kutztown Folk Festival in its first year, 1950.
The mission of the founders of the festival was to provide a unique hands-on approach that allowed visitors to experience firsthand one of America’s regional cultures and what it means to be part of a Pennsylvania Dutch family. A large part of that experience was the food.
At the inaugural Festival, funnel cakes were cooked up by four women in the funnel cake stand, frying four at a time and selling them for twenty-five cents each using the recipe one of them provided. A resounding success, funnel cakes became a fixture at the festival and their popularity spread to other areas.
Not really associated prior to that with the Pennsylvania Dutch, their decades long appearance at the annual Festival has cemented the connection in the minds of many.
The name “funnel cake” comes from the batter being drizzled through a funnel in a circular meandering pattern into a vat of hot oil in which it then fries to golden, brown, and delicious. In Pennsylvania Dutch, these lovelies are “drechterkuche“.
This hot and crispy fried delight is usually topped with a generous dousing of powdered sugar although some folks like to use other toppings including cinnamon sugar, honey, or even chocolate, caramel, and fruit-flavored syrups or, as I witnessed at many fairs in New England – maple syrup. Yes, this Pennsylvania Dutch favorite really gets around and has long-ago escaped the boundaries of being just a “Pennsylvania thing”, versions appearing world-wide.
We often went to fairs in New England where the guaranteed highlights of my day were watching draft horse pulls, the annual semis- and tractor-pulls, and the pleasures of a nugget of hot, crispy, sweet fried batter hitting my taste buds, my fingers and lips coated in white from the heavy dusting of powdered sugar.
After my long battle with an infection that resulted in a left below-the-knee amputation, my first attempt at return to a “new normal” was to grasp on to something I so loved before the trauma. That “something” was a taste of beloved Coal Region comfort food and an activity I enjoyed like fairs and carnivals.
We loaded up the van with the mobility scooters and headed out across New Hampshire to a fair close to the seacoast. It felt so good to be out among a joyous crowd and see new-born calves, award winning pies, and hear the roar of tractors at the starting line of the tractor pulls.
As the day drew to a close and my weary body was ready to go, my husband, bless his soul, insisted I should have a fair favorite and taste of home, so off he went to stand in line at a funnel cake stand. I carried most of it home with me like a grand prize as I was not yet back to my old self who could have demolished it all previously in one sitting, but oh, how good it tasted!
Although we associate the funnel cake with special events and celebrations, there is no need to limit their enjoyment to a few times a year when they can be made in your own kitchen!
If you do not have a funnel, you can pour the batter several ways; a handled measuring cup with a spout, or “pancake pen“. (How fast you pour or drop the batter onto the oil and the opening size of the funnel/dispenser will determine how “thin” or “chunky” your fried batter strands will end up. If using a funnel, the opening should be about 1/2 inch in diameter.)
If you’re serious about making funnel cakes, you might want to go the route the pros do in commercial concession stands; use a funnel pitcher. These are available in several styles online.
When using a funnel, hold the funnel in one hand and control the start and stop of the flow of batter from the funnel using the index finger of your other hand. Personally, my Rheumatoid Arthritis makes me love a pitcher and the “pancake pen“.
When frying, experiment with a little batter to get the technique you want and to test your oil temp. Oil that’s too hot will over-brown the batter before it cooks properly; too cool and the batter gets oily and not crispy. Using a candy/frying thermometer when frying is highly recommended.
Now, we “Dutchies” would traditionally use lard when frying (good lard obtained from a butcher, farmer, or from the refrigerated section at the grocery, not the stuff on the shelf because that is hydrogenated to be shelf-stable.) Other options for the oil are those with a high smoke point like peanut oil or grapeseed oil.
A good cast iron deep-side fry pan or dutch oven is great for frying, but slowly raise the temperature to where you need it; heated too much, cast iron takes awhile to cool down leaving you waiting around to obtain the proper temperature for the oil.
Funnel CakeCourse: Snacks, DessertCuisine: Coal Region, Pa. DutchDifficulty: Intermediate
Lard or oil for frying, enough to fill pan 1 1/2 to 2 inches. Use an oil with a high smoke point like grapeseed or peanut.
2 whole eggs, separated
2 cups lukewarm whole milk
2 cups flour, more or less as needed
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
dash of vanilla extract
Confectioner’s sugar, as needed
- Heat 1 1/2 to 2 inches of lard or vegetable oil in a pan or deep fryer to 375F degrees.
- Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, whisk the eggs yolks vigorously until light and lemon colored. Whisk in the milk. Set aside.
- In another bowl, sift together 1 3/4 cups of the flour, the baking powder. and the salt. Then sift this mixture again into the milk and egg mixture and beat to make a batter. The texture should resemble a thick pancake batter. If the batter seems too thin, add some or all of the remaining flour.
- In a separate clean bowl, beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks but are not dry. Gently fold into the batter until no streaks remain.
- Using approximately 1/2 cup batter, pour it into the funnel you are holding in one hand. Plug the bottom of the spout of the funnel with your index finger of your other hand.
- Drizzle the batter into the 375F degree oil, starting at the center and quickly moving outward in a spiral motion. Work quickly because the funnel cakes take only a couple minutes on each side to cook.
- Carefully flip the funnel cake once it browns on the first side using tongs, a slotted spoon or spatula. Using one spatula from underneath and a fork to control the top side works well. Fry on the second side until golden brown.
- Remove the funnel cake using a slotted spoon or kitchen spider and drain on a rack or crumpled paper towels. Move to another rack while still warm and sprinkle generously with powdered sugar. Repeat the drizzling and frying until all batter is used.
- Serve warm.
- Adapted from As American as Shoofly Pie by William Woys Weaver