Among the multitude of disappointments within our seemingly ceaseless pandemic summer, there is the matter of missing the fried dough season. Like Joey Tribbiani, I would describe my favorite food as "fried stuff." I believe you could throw a toothbrush into a vat of hot oil, and it would be immediately rendered delicious. But plain old batter? Topped with sugar? That's the best. That's the universal language of love.
I have braved the throngs at the San Gennaro festival just to put away some zeppoles. I have made a spectacle of myself devouring powdered sugar laden beignets at Cafe du Monde. I wouldn't go to San Francisco without getting donuts from Chinatown, any more than I'd go to Provincetown without eating malasadas from the Portuguese Bakery. Sticky Vietnamese bánh rán! Crispy Polish chrusciki in a clamshell box! Mexican churros with a side of hot chocolate! Syrupy Greek loukoumádes! Fritters! Any kind of fritters! If a food is so insanely sweet, crunchy and paper bag-destroying that I have to build a sugar crash nap into my schedule when I eat it, I want it.
Naturally, then, I am a big fan of the funnel cake. Ah, funnel cake, Pennsylvania's culinary apology for scrapple. A country fair favorite, the funnel cake is the fried stuff equivalent of the corner piece in a pan of brownies — an addictive combination of flavor and texture. Plus, it's just fun, a jaggedly tangle that says, "Hey, it's summer. Don't take yourself seriously." And who couldn't use a little more of that in their lives now?
There are probably events now opening up in which I could find a decent purveyor of fried dough before Labor Day if I tried. But, really, I'm not yet up for the threat of crowds. I'd rather bring the fair inside to my tiny apartment with the help of a "Great British Bake Off" heavyweight.
One of my great recent Netflix delights has been Nadiya Hussain's charming "Nadiya's Time to Eat." Hussain, the 2015 "GBBO" champion whose victory lap speech is the inspiration you need today, is both a talented baker and a practical instructor. Her recipes exist for a real world of work and parenting, for people who don't cook for a living and want to have nice things, too. And when I saw her make funnel cake on an episode called "Sweet and Easy," I was all in.
Modern generations have been raised with a fear of deep frying. We may eat plenty of processed and fast food and drink soda all day long, but pour a few cups of oil in a pan? We freak out. It just seems so . . . unhealthy. So I am here to invite you to get over it and to remind you that you don't actually drink the oil. I'm also here to say that if you really want to be shocked, check out the fat and calorie contents of a muffin.
The genius of Hussain's funnel cakes are that instead of the expected confectioner's sugar, they're dusted in luscious, surprising strawberry milk powder. Her recipe is uncomplicated enough, but as soon as she compared it to pancake batter, I knew I could really lazy this thing up. And sure enough, it wasn't long before I landed on a funnel cake recipe made just of pancake mix.
The result — aside from a treat that is automatically cheery, because it's pink — are funnel cakes that are simultaneously true to all the fried doughs you've loved before and something entirely new. The strawberry flavor brings an unexpected hit of tartness, while keeping all that intense sweetness intact. Biting into one — hot and straight out of the pan, of course — I was impressed at how complex the flavor could be with just that one added element.
And while I may not soon go back to powdered sugar, I can also imagine these being fantastic with Ovaltine dusted on top or some old-fashioned Swiss Miss. However you enjoy these, turn on the air conditioning, cue up a movie and have an inside state fair with no lines and no mosquitos — all the deep fried goodness you can handle.
Makes four servings
- 1 cup of complete buttermilk pancake mix
- 1/2 cup of water
- 6 tablespoons of Strawberry Quik
- 1 quart of vegetable oil for frying
- In a large pan with high sides, heat two inches of oil over high heat. (You're going to want to get it to 375° if you have a kitchen thermometer, but don't worry if you don't.)
- Line a cookie pan with paper towels or plain brown paper bags.
- Meanwhile, mix pancake mix and water. (You can add a tablespoon of white sugar for a sweeter batter.) Let it sit while the oil heats.
- When the oil is ready, spoon the batter into a sandwich bag (or pastry bag if have one).
- Snip off a corner of the bag. Squeeze a small drop of batter into the oil. If it sizzles and floats, you're ready.
- Working quickly, squeeze the batter into the pan in circular squiggles. Flip the squiggles over as they puff up and float, then remove to the lined cookie sheet. They will fry very quickly.
- Using a mesh strainer, sift the Quik over the funnel cakes, coating generously.
- Serve and eat immediately.