In a normal summer, there’s one food that you just can’t avoid. Whether you’re strolling down the seaside boardwalk, visiting the state fair, or chilling at a music festival, chances are the smell of fried dough is wafting through the air. If you can make it through the warm weather months without chowing down on funnel cake, well, you either have far more restraint than this writer will ever have, or you’re totally lying.
Or you’re social distancing inside and haven’t had the chance to be tempted at all this year. But it turns out, funnel cake is fairly easy to make at home.
First, though, where did this carnival staple come from and how did it become the omnipresent snack of choice for summer recreation everywhere?
Like a lot of food history, the origin of funnel cake can be traced back for centuries. Or even earlier if you consider the fact that people across Asia and Europe have been consuming fried dough since medieval times. During that dreary period of history, people would make sweet fritter cakes by pouring yeasty batter through bowls with small holes in the bottom and dousing the result in sugary syrup. Medieval cookbooks call the recipe “mincebek,” which is likely a derivation of the French phrase “mise en bec.” That loosely translates to “put in spout,” a reference to how the batter was poured into the oil.
But the modern incarnation of the funnel cake is a deeply American phenomenon. And we have the Pennsylvania-Dutch to thank. In the 17th and 18th centuries, primarily German-speaking immigrants made a dessert called “drechter kuche,” a dialect variation of “trichter,” the German word for funnel. (So the name of these treats is derived from the equipment and technique used to make them.) These fried cakes were immensely popular among the local community and were a hallmark of the region’s cuisine.
But it wasn’t until 1950 that funnel cake became the concession stand mainstay that it’s known as today. It was in that year that a group of professors at Pennsylvania’s Franklin & Marshall College collectively decided to celebrate and promote the state’s cultural heritage. As a result, they founded the annual Kutztown Folk Festival in an effort to grow interest in the region’s rich history. And of course that includes funnel cake. Over 25,000 people attended during the first year alone. This mass spike in attendance is credited with helping to spread the popularity of this simple but ingenious treat. The festival has continued every year since then and regularly attracts hundreds of thousands to the area. (This year, however, the festival went online due to COVID-19. All the more reason to learn to make funnel cake at home.)
You might not be able to make it out to the beach or the fair every day (or at all in during this pandemic), but you can still enjoy the fried goodness of funnel cake in your own home. The batter is relatively simple to make and consists of basic baking ingredients. You probably have all of them in your pantry already. All it takes is flour, eggs, salt, milk, and baking powder, as well as oil to fry it in. The main thing to remember when pouring is to keep moving the funnel in a circular and criss-crossing formation so the batter comes out in a steady stream.
And actually, a funnel isn’t even the best tool for the job; a piping bag gives you better control, but multiple sources suggest using an old ketchup bottle or other squeeze bottle to do the trick!
In terms of toppings, you can’t go wrong with classic powdered sugar. But if you’re feeling more decadent, add whipped cream or a drizzle of Nutella. If you want to go all out, add a scoop of ice cream for a perfect pairing of hot and cold sweetness. No matter how you serve it, you can’t go wrong with summer’s most beloved dessert.