Updated: Sep 1, 2021
This blog is the second installment of our series, Retro Recipes. These blogs feature historic recipes that are researched, tested, and reviewed by Loudoun Museum staff Paige Armstrong.
It’s carnival season right now in America, and that means the smell of sweets is in the air. Foods like cotton candy, candied apples, fried Oreos, and funnel cakes are easily found during this time of the year at any American fair. In this installment of Retro Recipes, I’ll be making "sweet raglets" (more commonly known as funnel cake). The recipe comes from an item in the Museum's collections: an issue of “The Ladies Home Journal,” published in 1898.
In the United States, funnel cake is a beloved fried food mainly enjoyed at carnivals and fairs. The fried stripes of dough can be garnished with powdered sugar, caramel sauce and just about any other topping you want. But when it comes to the history of this fried pastry, how many actually know its true origins? In this Retro Recipe I’m going to explore the history of the funnel cake, and how it found its popularity here in the States.
The concept of the funnel cake dates as far back as the early medieval Persian world. These recipes later spread to Europe, and have been found in Anglo-Norman medieval cooking manuscripts. There is even a recipe found in the Middle English cookbook, The Forme of Cury, which dates to 1390 AD. Early French names for these recipes included mincebek, or sometimes mistembec or cryspes. The French phrase “mis en bec” means “put in spout,” which relates to the way funnel cakes are made.
In medieval times funnel cakes, or fritters, were made from yeast or sourdough batter. Funnels for kitchen use hadn’t been invented yet, so the dough was poured through a bowl which had a hole cut out of its bottom. Sugar and sweet syrups were sprinkled and drizzled on top, while salt was also added. This resulted in a delicious salty-sweet treat that was popular during the winter months.
Today, many people in America associate funnel cakes with the Pennsylvania Dutch community. These communities were formed by German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania during the 18th and 19th centuries. Wanting to share their lifestyles and religious teachings to fellow Americans, members of these communities created the Kutztown Folk Festival in 1950. The first festival was held in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
During the festival traditional foods were served, and visitors could also watch live demonstrations and listen to old folktales. The funnel cake started to gain its popularity in the 1960s when it was sold to festival-goers. It all began when a handful of women opened a stand to make their family recipes for funnel cake and sell it for 25 cents each. They sold thousands of funnel cakes, and it soon became a trademark pastry for the festival. The festivals themselves were equally successful, and helped garner a national interest in Pennsylvania Dutch culture.
Since then, funnel cakes have spread beyond Pennsylvania German communities, and are featured at fairs and festivals around the country, including in Loudoun County. Each year, the deep-fried treats are served at the Loudoun County Fair, Lucketts Fair, Waterford Fair, and many other local fairs and events throughout the county.
How it turned out:
Making this dish was surprisingly a lot less difficult than I had first surmised. Preparing the batter, pouring it into the oil, and allowing it to cook only took about fifteen minutes, give or take. The ease of this recipe definitely has me excited to make this dish again, and I hope my readers will give it a try as well.
During the process of preparing the batter I was a little worried at first, because it was coming out kind of lumpy and not as a smooth batter. This concerned me because I didn’t use pastry flour (cake flour), and instead used sifted all-purpose flour. In the end it honestly didn’t make a difference. The end result was still a light and fluffy funnel cake nugget. So, in my opinion, you can use either type of flour and it will still come out good.
When it came to frying, I opted to use Crisco instead of lard. Mainly because of the price point for me, but next time I make this recipe I want to experiment with coconut oil for health reasons. Hydrogenated soybean oil has been proven to not be healthy to consume, and should be avoided if possible. I’m sure there are healthier alternatives out there that one can get for a reasonable price. I would choose whatever fatty oil or frying technique that works best for you. Since I used Crisco, I used a large pot and placed it on the stove, setting it to a medium-high temperature. I put in enough Crisco so that when melted, I would have about an inch of oil. This way I didn’t have to worry about the oil spraying out of the pot.
I didn’t readily have a funnel or pastry bag on hand, so I decided to use a Ziploc bag. After I scooped the batter into the bag, I made sure that all the air had been pushed out before sealing it. I then pushed all the batter into a corner of the bag and snipped a bit of the corner off with scissors. Just a few centimeters, because I didn’t want the opening to be too big. After that, I simply squeezed the batter into the oil slowly, making many little nuggets. I used a large straining spoon to stir the nuggets and flip them over to ensure that the whole pieces got fried properly.
Once they finished cooking, I first moved them to a bowl filled with cinnamon and sugar. For me, it was a bit of a hassle to roll them around quickly and then transfer them to a clean plate. So, I decided to just move all the nuggets to a clean plate, where I then would add the toppings. When I noticed that the sugar wasn’t sticking to the funnel nuggets, I had the idea to make a cinnamon and sugar glaze. The glaze took minutes to make, it was a nice addition and helped add just the right amount of sweetness to the dish.
Something I figured out after making my first batch was that the original recipe makes a very bland and not very sweet end result. Of course once you add your toppings it’s fine, but I wanted a sweeter base. So, I went back to the batter and added some sugar and vanilla extract. This way it would add just a little bit more to the finished product. In the end my friends and I preferred the taste of the second batch, which had the sugar and vanilla added in. Honestly, even if you don’t add sugar, I think just adding the vanilla in can really add a nice bit of flavor.
Overall I think this is a wonderful recipe, 5/5 for sure, and I hope readers give it a try. Funnel cakes are nice because you really can personalize this dish to fit your tastes. If you want a sweet treat, then you can add sugars and glazes. Want something a bit more on the healthy side? Add some fruit bits and maybe some Nutella. Garnish it however you wish.
For the next installment of Retro Recipes I will be baking “fairy wafers,” and going into the history of tea biscuits. I had originally planned to have both this recipe and the next in one post, but in order to have a more in-depth look into the histories of these dishes I thought it best to separate the two. I hope you join me again next time for my next Retro Recipe!
Have a suggestion for a future Retro Recipe? Message Loudoun Museum on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org !
Avey, Tori. "Funnel Cakes." Tori Avey Inspired by the Past. January 22, 2021. https://toriavey.com/toris-kitchen/funnel-cakes-history-recipe/.
Editor. "The History of Funnel Cake." Air Fun Games. March 7, 2016. https://www.airfungames.com/party-rental-resources/history-funnel-cake.
"The History of Funnel Cake." The Starving Actor. March 21, 2017. https://www.thestarvingactorla.com/uncategorized/the-history-of-the-funnel-cake/.
Marks, Gil. The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. Canada: Gil Marks, 2010.
"The Origins of Two American Fried Dough Classics: Funnel Cakes and Elephant Ears." Gold Medal. https://www.gmpopcorn.com/resources/blog/the-origins-of-two-american-fried-dough-classics-funnel-cakes-and-elephant-ears.