by Eric Wharton
My Recipe Book, constantly being added to
The area was encompassed in a bubble of warm, fragrant steam from the funnel cake deep fryers. It smelled like sweet vanilla cake batter you licked off a spoon.
— Sarah Addison Allen
Today, you can find this confection at almost every outdoor fair and festival in the country, but it's origins are far from obscure. They first began appearing in English medieval cooking manuscripts under the name mincebek or mistembec, words that are of French origin. They are likely connected to the French phrase mis en bec which translates to “put in a spout” (funnel).
A basic recipe appears as nysebek in the Middle English cookbook, The Forme of Cury. These medieval precursors were fritters made from a yeast and sourdough batter in a bowl with a small hole cut in the bottom. After frying, the were doused with sugar syrup and dusted with salt.
The recipe was brought to America by the Swiss-German immigrants escaping religious persecution—Amish, Mennonites, and Brethran—who settled in southeastern Pennsylvania and often referred to as Pennsylvania Dutch (Deutch). An early printed record was in a Pennsylvania German Manual by A. R. Horne (Allentown, PA, 1875) as drechd’rkucha, translated as "funnel cake."
Not widely popular at first, funnel cake was well known in certain family circles within the Pennsylvania Dutch community. It was often only sold as a novelty at nineteenth-century Christmas and New Year’s church bazaars and holiday markets. Because they were expensive to make—fresh eggs were in short supply during the winter months—Pennsylvania Dutch recipes for funnel cake were relatively scarce.
That all changed in 1950, when Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, set out to create the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center. In order to promote a growing national interest in Pennsylvania Dutch culture while at the same time raising funds for the folklore center, they began the Kuntztown Folk Festival. The festival was the first of its kind, in that it focused completely on one specific regional American culture. Every aspect of Pennsylvania Dutch life was covered, from food to religion, through storytelling and demonstrations.
Funnel cakes were served at the festival and became wildly popular as a result. A woman by the name of Grace Merkel Henninger recalled making the cakes for hungry festival-goers along with friends Stella Heinly and Emma Miller. Miller provided the recipe—she had been making funnel cakes for her family during the winter holidays.
During the festival, several thousand funnel cakes were sold. From that time forward, funnel cake became a trademark dessert at every Pennsylvania Dutch festival that followed. It soon found its way into mainstream American cuisine.
The traditional way to make funnel cakes is to drop the batter into the oil using a funnel. However, over the years, because using a funnel can be messy, cooks have gone to piping (cake decorating) bags to make the process neater and more efficient. There are other options as well.
One time, as a Scout leader, I planned to let a group of Boy Scouts make their own funnel cakes for their evening snack. Of course, this had disaster written all over it, but I began to think of an alternate way of dropping the batter into the oil that would not only be mess-less but also make it safe for them to do. I came up with the idea of pouring the batter into some empty ketchup bottles that the scouts could hold at arms length and simply squeeze a few ropes out into the oil to watch their funnel cakes cook. It was a smashing success, but they ended up renaming them "ketchup kakes."
1 whole egg
2/3 cup milk
11/3 cup flour
1 tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
Beat eggs and add milk. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Gradually add sugar, egg, and milk.
Heat 1-inch deep cooking oil to 375˚ and pour batter into the oil using funnel or whatever means you want. Cook 30 seconds on one side and with a fine mesh skimmer or similar utensil, turn over and cook 30 seconds more. Remove, place on plate, and sprinkle with confectioners (10-X) sugar.
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