Once Labor Day has come and gone, it's full on fair season, which means it's time for caramel apples, cotton candy, and corn dogs. If your Tilt-A-Whirl days are behind you, though, there's no reason you have to miss out on all of the fried goodness. Not when you can make the king of fair food, the funnel cake, at home.
The Pennsylvania Dutch are the likely architects of the American-style funnel cake—a lightly sweetened, airy and crisp fried confection that's dusted with confectioner's sugar. At state fairs, funnel cakes are enormous, paper plate-sized affairs that are made by pouring batter from a funnel in a winding circular pattern over hot oil.
Traditional recipes call for a fairly standard batter: flour, eggs, sugar, milk, baking soda or baking powder, but I discovered that you can make awesome funnel cakes with "complete" buttermilk pancake mix (look for brands that only require the addition of water). After all, these boxed mixes contain little more than, well, flour, eggs and milk (in powdered form), sugar, and leavening agents. Plus, many county fair funnel cake stands are likely starting from some kind of mix, anyhow. I like to doctor my mix with a touch more sugar and vanilla for true funnel cake flavor.
Timing, batter thickness, and funnel spout size are the keys to funnel cake success. If your batter is too thin or watery, you'll have an enormous mess that spreads and won't hold together. If your batter is too gloppy, you won't be able to pour it out in a timely enough fashion to avoid an overdone crunchy mess. A 1-cup funnel with a 1/4-inch opening works well, but a squeeze bottle with the same 1/4-inch opening is even better, if non-traditional. With the bottle, it's easier to control the flow rate.
One of the other benefits of making funnel cakes at home is you can control the size of your cake, and you can top it as you please. Hello, funnel cake ice cream sundae!
2 quarts (1.9 liters) canola oil, for frying
1 1/2 (195g) cups complete buttermilk pancake mix (see note)
2 tablespoons (25g) sugar
1/2 cup (119ml) water
2 teaspoons (10g, 10ml) vanilla extract
Powdered sugar to garnish
Heat oil to 375°F (190°C) in a large Dutch oven and adjust flame to maintain temperature. While oil is heating, prepare funnel cake batter.
In a large bowl, whisk together pancake mix and sugar. Whisk in water and vanilla until smooth. Batter should be the thickness of cake batter; not too thin and not too gloppy. It should form ribbons as it falls when lifted out of bowl with whisk.
If using squeeze bottle, cut opening so it measures 1/4 across. Add batter and close lid. If using funnel, cover the opening of funnel with finger and position over center of Dutch oven. Either squeeze batter out of bottle or allow batter to flow into oil, working quickly to swirl in a looped circular pattern into a 4- to 5-inch-large disk. Fry cake until golden brown on first side, 1 to 2 minutes. Using a shallow heat-resistant strainer or spider, carefully flip funnel cake and fry until golden brown on second side, about 1 minute. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate and repeat with remaining batter.
Place confectioner's sugar in a fine-mesh strainer and tap over cakes to dust lightly. Serve immediately.
Whisk, Dutch oven, clip-on digital thermometer, heat-resistant tongs, shallow heat resistant strainer or spider, 1-cup funnel with approximately 1/4-inch opening or plastic squeeze bottle with approximately 1/4-inch opening
Look for pancake mix that only requires adding water.