In a typical summer, there’s one food that you probably can’t avoid: funnel cake. Whether you’re strolling along the seaside boardwalk, visiting the state fair, or chilling at a music festival, the smell of fried dough is likely wafting through the air.
Funnel cake is also fairly easy to make at home, so we’ll break down how to do so. But first, we explain where this carnival staple came from and how it became the summer recreation snack of choice.
Like a lot of food history, you can trace the origin of funnel cake 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 they poured the batter into the oil.
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. The name of these treats is derived from the equipment and technique used to make them.
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 generate interest in the region’s rich history. And of course, that includes funnel cake.
More than 25,000 people attended during the first year alone. This massive 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.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the festival went online, giving you 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, but you can still enjoy the fried goodness of funnel cake in your own home.
What you’ll need
The batter is pretty simple to make and consists of basic baking ingredients. You probably have all of them in your pantry already. All it takes is:
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- 1 cup cooled water
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 3 large eggs
- 2 large egg whites
- Canola oil
- Confectioners’ sugar
First up, you’ll need:
- a medium-sized saucepan
- a stockpot
- a stand or handheld mixer (with a paddle attachment, if possible)
- a funnel (maybe) or a pastry piping bag
- a cooling rack
And actually, a funnel isn’t even the best tool for the job. A piping bag gives you better control, but you can try using an old ketchup bottle or another squeeze bottle to do the trick.
- Combine butter, water, salt, and sugar in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat.
- Remove from heat and quickly stir in the flour. Return the pan to low heat and cook, stirring frequently, for about 3 minutes. This will cook the flour slightly and rid the mixture of that starchy, floury taste that no one likes.
- Remove the pan from the heat and place the dough in the bowl of the mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium speed until most of the steam subsides, then add the eggs and egg whites, one at a time, until each incorporates, and a batter forms.
- Pour 3-inches of oil into a stockpot and heat to 350ºF (177ºC).
- Meanwhile, place the batter in a pastry bag with a round pastry tip that’s no wider than 1/4 inch in diameter.
- Holding the pastry bag over the hot oil, push the batter out into the hot oil in a zigzag or spiral shape. Fry no more than one large or two smaller funnel cakes at a time.
- Fry the cakes for 3 to 5 minutes until they’re golden, and they’ve puffed up to triple their original size. Flip them every 30 seconds or so.
- Drain the cakes on a rack and cool slightly, then sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar and your topping of choice.
The main thing to remember when pouring is to keep moving the funnel in a circular and crisscrossing formation so the batter comes out in a steady stream.
Toppings for funnel cake
In terms of toppings:
- You can’t go wrong with classic powdered sugar.
- 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.
Bring the Renaissance festival to your living room by making your own funnel cakes. With its roots in the Pennsylvania-Dutch food culture, the funnel cake became a mainstay of the Kutztown Folk Festival and pretty much every festival since.
Use an empty condiment bottle or a pastry bag with a nozzle to squeeze out the dough, fry it up, and top it. You can use powdered sugar, berries, ice cream — whatever you feel like.