The search for the perfect fried sweet
So a couple weeks ago I was in the midst of my personal, daily hell of figuring out what I want to eat. That particular day, I had the normal vague sense that I really wanted something, but lots of hard thinking wasn't giving shape to the amorphous concept of something good, simple, rare, from a long time ago. I noticed what a nice day it was, but kind of hot . . . summer . . . outside . . . festivals . . . . Holy shit I want some fried dough! Whew. But hold on a sec, where exactly am I gonna get fried dough on a Tuesday afternoon in midtown? Curse you, yet again, brain.
Nearly every culture on Earth that grinds grain into flour fries dough--Italian zeppole, Chinese you tiao, Portuguese malasadas, and closer to home, Native American fry bread and Pennsylvania Dutch elephant ears or knee patches, so called because they are formed by stretching dough on a washcloth draped over one's knee. Indeed, as I planned my next course of action, I thought back to a Sunday morning a fucking quarter century ago, when after spending the night at a friend's house, his mom took some tube-style biscuits, poked holes in them, fried them in oil and shook them in a paper bag filled with sugar and cinnamon. Utter genius, and also when I realized doughnuts were fried (for some reason I'd assumed they were baked).
But what I was looking for can normally only be found at summer festivals or fairs, a lumpy, somewhat crusty, kinda poofy, slightly chewy, and if you're lucky, a tad yeasty, disc. And it's the savory, bready bass note coupled with a more textural complexity that gives fried dough its character. Which is why, in my opinion, it is superior to funnel cake, an admitted triumph of maximized surface area, its ostentatious tendrils providing an vast, serpentine 3-D canvas for airy crispness, tasty Maillard reactions (browning), and powdered sugar deposits. Nonetheless, it's all crowd-pleasing flash and no soul, an appletini to fried dough's old fashioned, if you will. Also note that funnel cake is actually fried batter (liquid), not dough (solid), so please don't use the two terms interchangeably.
In any case, it seems like fried dough is becoming harder and harder to find, even in what was once its native domain of outdoor festivals. When asked to describe the last time they had fried dough, most people began instead to talk about funnel cake. Bitter disappointment in my friends aside, I get the feeling that fried dough is slowly becoming extinct in these parts, succumbing to funnel cake's seductive, yet ultimately cheap thrills. There, I said it. Symptomatic of society's collective collapse into shallowness? Perhaps. Helping me get my hands on some damn fried dough? Not at all.
I did seem to recall that there used to be a place in the Light Street Pavilion of Harborplace that sold fried dough, but if it was ever really there it's gone now. I figured a bakery would be a logical possibility, but then it occurred to me that most bakeries probably wouldn't have deep fryers--I called several anyway and was predictably SOL. Then out of desperation, and perhaps some inscrutable, spooky magnetism, I found myself at Lexington Market, and sure enough a tip from the sno-ball guy (summer foods for the win!) led me to the Italian Stallion pizza stall, where sure enough fried freakin' dough is on the menu! With or without fruit topping even.
It made perfect sense, instead of making a discrete fried-dough dough, they use dough they already have lying around--pizza dough--stretched slightly, given a few tears (for added crunchiness maybe?), and eased into the deep fryer from whence fries had just been extracted. Aw, hell yeah.
My enthusiasm was probably disconcerting to the Korean couple running the place, and my Korean is too sucky for me to explain in any meaningful way, so I took my order and shuffled away from their judging eyes to cram my maw without shame. Alas, what I'd received was overdone--too brown, crunchy without any chewiness, and possessing only a few large poofs rather than many smaller ones. I mean, I still ate the whole thing, but it wasn't even close to the paradigm I'd formed in my mind, one of my earliest food memories in fact. I don't know when or where I got it, but I do remember the thing itself: tiny, shiny blisters covering a bumpy, golden platter that when lifted retains its shape for a few moments, then slowly bends under its own heft while producing a sound somewhere between crackling and muffled shattering. It was both crunchy and crisp, chewy, elastic, soft, tender, pully, leaving a slight gummy adhesion between the teeth, the fleeting brush of powdered sugar dissolving instantly, leaving only luxurious liquid fat and subtle socarrat browning. Seems too specific to have just been made up, right?
A fellow fried-dough fan mentioned Luca's Café in Locust Point, where they serve fried dough with a side of honey as a dessert special. And while theirs was a much nicer amber color, the texture was again overly crunchy, and upon inquiry it was revealed that they, too, use pizza dough.
Disappointingly, pizza places that I know for a fact sell raw pizza dough met me with disdain and haughty chortling when asked if they serve fried dough. What, you think you're too good to fry up some dough? So it would seem that outside of a festival, the two aforementioned places are the only game in town if you want to get a fried dough fix. False! It is incredibly easy to make at home and you get immensely superior results. So simple in fact, I don't need to address it at all in this space, you can find the easy (and a not-so easy) recipe below.
1 tube Pillsbury Grands Southern Style Biscuits (not flaky, not buttermilk!)
Some neutral flavored oil, e.g. canola, corn
Pop open can
Mercilessly flatten each biscuit with your palm, then stretch thin
Heat a fry pan filled with about an inch of oil over medium-low heat, until a tiny piece of dough dropped into the oil bubbles immediately and vigorously
Carefully slide in 1 (or as many will fit comfortably) flattened biscuit into the oil and fry until golden, perhaps 30 seconds
Carefully flip and fry other side
Remove from oil and drain on paper towels, sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve
Notes: One tube makes 8 approximately 8-inch fried doughs. Upon insertion into oil, the center tends to puff up, sometimes causing the center of the first side to not brown. To prevent this, tear a small hole in the middle of the disc. Otherwise carefully press puffy center down with whatever kitchen tool you're using (tongs work best when making fried dough). This method makes fried dough that is very brown, light, airy and quite delicate--it may not stand up well to wet toppings. Pre-made pizza dough also works, but produces a crunchier, more substantial fried dough. It can be purchased at most Italian markets
1 cup self rising flour
1 cup sweet rice flour (also called glutinous rice flour or mochiko)
1 cup warm water
2 tablespoons oil or melted butter
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
Combine the rice flour, 3/4 cup of the regular flour, baking powder, salt and sugar in a bowl
Add water and oil/butter, mixing with a rubber spatula
Add additional flour to form mixture into a soft but workable dough
Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead 12 times
Divide into three pieces and stretch into roughly 10-inch discs
Fry as directed above
Notes: This recipe produces fried dough that has a light gold, crunchy/crispy surface, and slightly dense, slightly sticky interior. The raw dough is extremely sticky and delicate--adding flour liberally while kneading/stretching is key. For a yeastier flavor, exclude baking powder, and dissolve one packet of dry instant yeast into the warm water. If using yeast, allow dough to rise for 90 minutes in a covered bowl before kneading. Punch down and then knead. Sweet rice flour can be found at Asian supermarkets, but Potung Trading on Park Avenue has it for the best price.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201