Know Your Sweets: Funnel Cake
Funnel Cake (aliases: Dribble Cake, Funny Cake) is a carnival classic that has all the trappings of the perfect fairground food: it's fried, it's doughy, and it's a fantastic vehicle for any number of luxurious, extra-sugary toppings. The snack is created when battered is poured through a funnel directly into hot frying oil, creating the zig-zagging, overlapping circular shape and crunchy, chewy confection we've all come to know and love.
Churros, Rosettes, Strauben (Austrian), Fennel Funnel Pie, Jalebi (Indian), Frybread, Zeppole
Key Tool Spotlight: Funnel
Where would the funnel cake be without a proper funnel through which to pour the batter? The funnel is responsible for the dizzying swirls that make the cake one of the most easily recognizable fair snacks, and perfect for those hot little hands of the kid who has just exited the Tilt-a-Whirl.
The first funnel cakes were made using a simple bowl with a hole cut in the middle through which bakers would pipe the batter into the hot oil. Since the consistency of batter flowing into the hot oil is key, makeshift piping bags also were briefly used to ensure even distribution. Primarily, though, the use of a simple kitchen funnel has been the standby instrument for creating the treat, in addition to calling a floating metal ring into service to create a proper circular shape. In some instances—particularly for mass production—a special pitcher with a built-in funnel is used to quickly make a mess of cakes without the need for batter refill.
Kutztown, Pennsylvania is known as the heartbeat of funnel cake culture in America, largely because it has worked diligently to achieve that title. The Kutztown Folk Festival became well known for and associated with the funnel cakes they served at the fair, propagating the folklore that funnel cakes are of Pennsylvania Dutch origin. While the true heritage of funnel cake is still hotly contested—some feel that the snack was created on the boardwalks of New Jersey—the town remains the epicenter of this state fair gem.
The funnel cake has one of the most diverse international families of any dessert, with fried cousins spanning multiple countries and cultures. In India, jalebi is a sticky, fried dough piped in concentric circles sweetened with rose water and saffron. The rosettes of Sweden are as if a funnel cake was forced to don a lace dress for a tea party: fried dough shaped in the mold of an elegant flower. No May Day in Finland would be complete without a tippaleipä, a smaller, more compact funnel cake eaten in celebration of the holiday. The funnel cake's family tree has many diverse, and delicious, branches.
In the United States, the variation comes down largely to topping choices, which include Nutella, fruit, chocolate drizzle, or the old stand-by, powdered sugar. The argument over whether to use the traditional, unleavened pancake-like batter or an (arguably better tasting) yeasty, choux base continues to serve as a source of contention for some funnel cake purists.
While a recipe for a funnel cake ancestor, mincebek, likely made out of a sourdough batter, can be traced back to the Middle Ages, Kutztown, Pennsylvania is mostly to thank for the funnel cake's massive national spread to every roadside stand, fair, and outdoor sporting event imaginable.
Funnel cakes were originally associated with holidays and special events, having ties to both Christmas and the New Year in the Pennsylvania Dutch community, a group of German immigrants who settled in the area in the late 1700s. (The group obviously has good taste: they also brought us Shoofly Pie.) The first mention of a funnel cake in a German cookbook seems to have appeared in 1879, with an English recipe not materializing until the 1930s. However, after they made their shining debut at the Kutztown Folk Festival, which began in 1950, the sugary treat soon sold by the thousands and became the signature dish of the annual event.
In 2009, professional eaters Joey Chestnut and Pat Bertoletti both consumed a world record 5.9 pounds of funnel cake in Doswell, VA. The tiebreaker? More eating, of course. Chestnut emerged victorious from the battle, downing an additional 1.45 pounds of the sweet treat.
Want to make funnel cake at home? The recipe is right this way >>