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Where did Funnel Cakes come from?

People in a parking lot, one holds a funnel cake.

What’s more American than fried foods and fairs? With summer here — and outdoor carnivals popping up around the nation — we’re taking a look at the history of a mandatory carnival must-have: hot and crispy funnel cakes.

Despite debate on the true origin of funnel cakes, it is popularly believed that these crispy-fried confections were created by the Pennsylvania Dutch, a group of German immigrants who landed in Pennsylvania before the 19th century. (The first ever recipe resembling a funnel cake showed up in a German cookbook in 1879.)

The name “funnel cake” was derived from the method of squeezing batter through a funnel in a circular pattern into hot oil to achieve a dizzying pattern of crispy-fried dough. The oldest recipe for a funnel cake in an English cookbook appeared in 1935, which instructed the cook to turn “the stream around in a gradual enlarging circle” and “serve hot with any tart jelly.”

Originally served for holidays and harvest festivals, funnel cakes became a natural addition to street fairs and outdoor carnivals because of their use of ingredients that were easily available and stored at these events. Concession stands employed special pitchers with funnel spouts attached to fry up the unleavened batter. The result was an automatic hit among fair-goers, who found the fun-to-eat food irresistible.

Surprisingly enough, funnel cakes are considered a lower-calorie treat compared to other fried dough (a 6-inch funnel cake contains less than 300 calories) because the steam produced by the high water content allows the batter to expand, resulting in a light and airy texture. But extra calories have piled on over the years, thanks to an increase in cake diameter and the addition of sweet toppings such as powdered sugar, nutella and jam.

Funnel cakes have become a truly global delight, with cultures around the world adapting their own variations of sweet fried dough, including strauben in Austria, tippaleipä in Finland and flancati in Slovenia. But one thing’s certain: You won’t step into a state fair this summer without spotting Americans biting into this crunchy, golden-brown treat.