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Restaurants make dough with fair fare: funnel cakes are latest attraction in casual and fine dining

If there is one food that evokes images of hot, lazy summer days across America, it is the funnel cake.

Not so much a cake--it's more like a distant cousin of a fritter - a funnel cake is made when thin, pancake-like-batter is poured through a funnel into hot oil. The result is a tangled jumble of fried-dough tentacles, which are dusted with powdered sugar or brushed with honey.

Thought to have originated in America in Pennsylvania Dutch country, funnel cakes now can be found all across the country, usually made by vendors at large outdoor gatherings in the summer. The classic funnel cake is big enough for several people to pull apart munchable pieces--inevitably depositing much of the sugar on their clothing. Finger licking is required.

For many, the greasy smell alone of a funnel cake cooking is enough to call to mind happy times at a state fair, a beach boardwalk or an amusement park. But this summer a growing number of fine-dining restaurants are offering gussied-up versions of the nostalgic dessert.

David Burke, co-owner of davidburke & donatella in New York, for example, sometimes offers mini boardwalk-style funnel cakes, which are dropped into a bag of powdered sugar and shaken so they are totally coated. The cakes are poured with the sugar onto a plate and served with three types of jam spiked with various liqueurs for about $12. Or the funnel cakes also might be served as part of a "boardwalk plate" of desserts that may include waffles, ice-cream sandwiches and cotton candy, Burke says.

Todd Richards, chef de cuisine at The Oakroom in the genteel Seelbach Hilton Hotel in downtown Louisville, Ky., in August is planning a special state fair-inspired tasting menu that will include funnel cakes, to coincide with the opening of the fair in town.

"In Kentucky the state fair coming to town is as big as Christmas or any other holiday," Richards says. "We don't have a pro sports team in town, so we don't have anything else to get as excited about."

Richards says that while the AAA five-diamond restaurant is known as a more formal venue, he aims to bring in a younger, more hip crowd with his upscale take on the familiar favorites, such as lobster "corn dogs" with yellow-tomato ketchup, pretzel-crusted quail, and an oxtail-stuffed Kobe beef burger with truffle cheese and Yukon Gold tries.

For dessert Richards uses a mold to shape his funnel cakes into more of a flat circle. He plates the dish in two layers: One funnel cake is nestled in strawberry sauce and dusted with powdered sugar and then covered with balsamic-macerated figs and strawberries, with another sugar-dusted funnel cake on top as a crown. The dessert is priced at $12.

At the white-tablecloth restaurant Mix in West Hollywood, Calif., pastry chef Lokelani Alabanza spices up her funnel cake dough with a bit of cinnamon and vanilla bean. "That way you always have a background taste," which plays off other ingredients, she says.

Alabanza likes to fry her dough without a mold "so it comes out like a squiggly octopus," she explains. The cakes are served on a strawberry compote, topped with strawberries soaked in rose water, and dusted with sugar, for $7.

Ideally, funnel cakes are airy and light, with a slightly crisp skin. At IHOP this summer, however, the funnel cakes offered as a special promotion are more dense and reminiscent of cake doughnuts.

Carolyn O'Keefe, chief marketing officer for the Glendale, Calif.-based chain, says the density was designed to hold up to the strawberry or blue-berry sauces served with the cakes, along with whipped cream. Some stores are plating the funnel cakes as a dessert with ice cream for kids.

IHOP's funnel cakes are available as an add-on at prices starting at $1.49 or as a large plate starting at $4.99, depending on the market, O'Keefe says.

Since the promotion began at the end of June, the response has been "outstanding," O'Keefe adds, though she declined to reveal sales numbers.

"It has far exceeded expectations," she says. "This product tested very well for us, but to go from testing to 1,200 restaurants, you never really know."

O'Keefe found guests have responded to the product in particular simply because "it's fun. Whenever you go to a street fair, the longest line is always for funnel cakes."

Indeed, in a recent survey by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, 28 percent of American adults said they prefer funnel cakes, compared with 17 percent listing ice cream as their top choice, 14 percent for pizza, 13 percent for hot dogs and 12 percent for cotton candy.

Women, in particular, favor funnel cakes and cotton candy, while men are more likely to prefer pizza and hot dogs, the survey found.

Rather than take the funnel cake out of the festival context, some restaurateurs aim to bring the festival into their dining rooms, with funnel cakes as the piece de resistance.

The Minnow, a casual seafood restaurant in Brooklyn, N.Y., for example, this month is offering its annual Blue Crab Festival over two consecutive weekends. For $30 per adult, guests can feast on beer-boiled blue crab with sides such as sweet corn on the cob, pancetta-studded potato salad, black-eyed pea salad and coleslaw. For dessert, watermelon slices and funnel cakes are offered.

Chef-owner Aaron Bashy says his dough at Minnow is made with a touch of vanilla bean, but otherwise they are served traditionally with a sprinkle of powdered sugar in waxed-paper cones, as they might be served at Coney Island.

"People love them," he says.

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