To a New Mexican, is there anything more welcoming than a basket of freshly fried sopaipillas? Back in December, I brazenly categorized them as a New Mexican specialty that is "rarely found" outside of the land of enchantment.
Shortly thereafter, my assertion was challenged by Serious Eaters nationwide, who also laid claim to the treat in California, Texas, and Nebraska, among other lucky states. There is nothing like the force of anecdotal evidence to make a writer qualm, so in the interest of pacifying all the non-New Mexicans who also have access to sopaipillas, I'll revise my statement and say that sopaipillas are not especially common outside of the state.
But really, sopaipillas are wonderful. Not just because when I eat them I'm usually surrounded by friends in New Mexico, and not because the mere whiff of that fried yeastiness reminds me of home. No, sopaipillas are just plain delicious because a) they're made with lard and b) they're fried in lard. That's right folks, I'm still talking about lard. I have pints of it still in my fridge. Lard ice cream, anyone?
The dough for sopaipillas, leavened and allowed to rise briefly, is enriched with a mere teaspoon of lard. Operating on the premise that one can never have too much of a good thing, in the past I've tried to double the amount of lard. But in fact, only a spoonful of fat is enough to enrich the dough. Any more fat will yield a crispy fried treat that's more cracker than bread, though of course no self-respecting New Mexican would dream of adding less. Besides which, the squares of dough are fried in lard, so there's enough fat involved to satisfy fat lovers.
I'm often asked how integral lard is to sopaipillas. Though I'm more forgiving when vegetarians do the asking, my general answer is that although vegetable oil or shortening may be used, sopaipillas fried in lard are especially rich and satisfying. I must admit, however, that the results are still extremely good when shortening is substituted for lard in the both the dough as well as the frying medium.
Finally, while sopaipillas are the classic bread accompaniment to a New Mexican meal, I'm partial to having them with my morning coffee. Fresh out of the bubbling lard, perfect sopaipillas are crisp on the corners and tender on the inside. Upon contact with the fat, the raw squares of dough will sizzle and puff dramatically; like pita bread, the hot air building inside forces the separation of the dough.
El Parasol in Espanola, New Mexico, makes one of my favorite renditions of sopaipiallas and serves them not only with honey—the common accompaniment—but also with little bowls of apricot preserves. It is the only restaurant I've visited that serves its sopaipillas with apricot preserves, but I think it's a brilliant pairing. Unlike honey, the slight tartness of the apricots cuts through the richness of the bread.
Place all the dry ingredients in a bowl and cut in the lard with a fork, until there are only small flakes of in the flour.
Dissolve the yeast in warm water; add the sugar and set aside for 5 minutes. Add the yeast to the cooled scalded milk.
Add the liquid to the dry ingredients. Mix to form a shaggy but not too wet dough. Knead the dough for 7 to 10 minutes, until it's smooth and fairly elastic. Cover with a tea towel and let rest for 15 minutes.
In the meantime, heat the rendered lard in a wok or frying skillet, until the candy thermometer register 300°F to 350°F.
Roll the dough out to a 1/8-inch thickness and cut into 3-inch squares. Slip the squares of dough into the lard, two at a time, not flipping until after the squares puff out. Fry on both sides, flipping only as needed for 1 to 2 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Serve warm with honey and preserves.