Funnel cake is an Amish or Pennsylvania Dutch dessert created by frying unleavened, or non-rising, cake batter in hot grease. The batter is dispensed through a funnel or a container with a funnel-shaped spout. It is generally formed by making circular and lattice-shaped motions over the hot grease. When one side has turned golden brown, it is carefully flipped over and allowed to finish cooking. The completed funnel cake is then drained on paper and coated with honey, powdered sugar, chocolate syrup or a variety of fruit toppings.
The traditional funnel cake began as a regional dish prepared by the Pennsylvania Dutch and Amish communities living primarily in western Pennsylvania and Ohio. It was most often prepared for special occasions, such as harvest festivals or German holidays. Visitors to Amish or Pennsylvania Dutch restaurants were often presented with it as a dessert item. The popularity grew as word of this simple dessert reached larger cities in the Midwest, such as Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
Although a number of funnel cake recipes exist for home use, most people only experience the phenomenon at carnivals, fairs and other outside events with concession stands. The basic batter can be purchased in bulk through concession supply stores, along with the shortening, funnel-shaped dispenser and fryer vat. Commercial concession stands may also offer fruit toppings, whipped cream or self-serve honey and chocolate syrup dispensers.
The batter used to form a funnel cake does not contain baking soda or baking powder, which keeps it from rising as it cooks in the fryer. The end result is a slightly crispy cake with a distinctive donut-like texture. The remaining oil allows powdered sugar or other toppings to adhere to the surface of the cake, but eating one can be a messy experience. Many enthusiasts use a knife and fork to cut the treat into more manageable pieces.
In recent years, several specialty stores have begun offering funnel cake franchises as a means of fundraising or providing secondary income. These companies offer interested groups and individuals all of the start-up equipment and specialized batter mixes to start their own stands at local public shows and events. Because the cost of the batter, shortening and other ingredients is relatively low, a vendor can quickly earn a profit after only a few sales. The name recognition of funnel cake alone can drive traffic to the concession stands offering it. Selling them as a fundraising effort has become popular among many charitable and non-profit groups.