The eleven weeks between the last day of school and the first day of school is carnival season. I’m not talking about the celebration before Lent; I’m talking about the kind of carnival with a Gravitron. My family is one big group of carnival enthusiasts, typically attending at least three per summer. The rides, games, and people watching are all reasons for our fandom, but the primary appeal is the food.
What would I classify as carnival food? Excluding common categories like beer, sandwiches, and ice cream novelties, carnival food is anything portable, sugary, salty, and crispy on the outside. Anything that turns a paper plate translucent, like fried treats or a buttery corn on the cob, is under consideration. If there’s a food item you’d feel a smidgen of embarrassment eating anywhere but a sun-scorched midway, it’s probably carnival food.
Regrettably, carnival season is pretty much canceled for 2020. Since it’s too much work to put on a full carnival at home (have you ever tried to build a Gravitron in a weekend?) I tried to give my family some semblance of the experience. I picked four quintessential carnival foods—funnel cake, kettle corn, cheese curds, and deep-fried Oreos—and made them at home using readily available online recipes.
I wanted to assess whether each treat was worth the trouble to make at home, and whether it’d be worth making again in the future. I also wanted to measure how closely I could mimic the taste of what you typically buy from purveyors in those Fotomat-sized booths along the midway. With these criteria in mind, I set out to satisfy all our summer 2020 cravings.
The ideal funnel cake has a crispy outside, an airy inside, and a melted coating of sugar. When it’s good, it’s good.
Given the richness and typical price point of this dessert (we don’t want to blow 27 tickets on three funnel cakes!), polishing off one cake at a carnival is typically a team exercise. So I opted for this recipe, which only yields 1-2 cakes. Assuming you have a basket strainer or large slotted spoon to retrieve the cake, the recipe is pretty easy to execute. But I stupidly used a freezer bag with the corner snipped off to pipe out the ingredients instead of drizzling them from a cup as recommended by the recipe, resulting in something more like zeppole than the classic nest-like cake.
Taste-wise, the results were perfectly acceptable. The cake was more dense and less sweet than what you would expect to get at the fair—almost like a frybread. A hot oil temperature resulted in a short cooking time too. My team of taste testers carry a strong funnel cake bias, so this is one treat that we’ll definitely be making again. Next time, though, I’ll rethink my piping strategy and go for something that dispenses the batter at a faster pace.
The best kettle corn is a mix of sweet and salty with a very faint candy coating. And the recipe seemed simple: just sugar, oil, and unpopped corn kernels. After the oil gets hot, you simply slosh the popcorn and sugar in the oil with the lid on the pot until you have a full batch of popcorn. That didn’t happen.
My resulting kettle corn looked like a burnt bowl of ants. What was supposed to take 15 minutes took 30 and still came out half fluffy. Worse, the unpopped kernels fused to what little popped corn I had created. Not satisfied with the outcome, I tried again a week later, with only slightly better results. The second time, I waited for three kernels to pop in the hot oil before combining anything, and took care to slide the pan on the heat versus lifting it off and on.
Regardless of the improvements with the second batch, I’m not sure we’ll keep this in the rotation. It’s a lot of work for something on par with what our air popper produces. Any carnival stand that stirs the corn in a real kettle—ideally with an oar—far exceeds the home experience.
The best cheese curds in the world come from Hot Wisconsin Cheese at the Wisconsin State Fair, specifically the one near the cream puff stand. This recipe approximates their style using a lightweight beer batter. The hardest part of recreating this dish was finding quality cheddar curds in Illinois, but if you look hard enough you’ll find them. I had to settle for a specialty grocery store. While the recipe calls for two pounds of cheese, 8 ounces was more than enough.
Cooking curds is messy. The only effective way we found to coat them in batter is to dunk them by hand and shake off the excess. While frying, some of the cheese inevitably escapes its golden shell and pools on the bottom of the pan. All the mess and precariousness was worth it, though, because these turned out amazing. They fried up fast, and the result was a hot, chewy inside with a crispy outside. Best of all, the cheddar cheese flavor managed to shine through. For the perfect finishing touch, I suggest homemade ranch dressing; the Hidden Valley spice packet recipe works just fine, but substitute sour cream for mayonnaise. We’ll definitely make these again, regardless of the mess and loss of curds. (Now I see the wisdom in starting off with two pounds of cheese.)
I was prepared to dislike these. Every deep-fried Oreo experience at the fair has been subpar, because the cookie collapses into a liquid mess. I found a recipe with a high oil temperature and low cook time, figuring that the cookie would have a better chance of keeping its form. I also used Double Stuf Oreos, because the Stuf is the best part of the Oreo.
My hypothesis proved true. The batter, essentially pancake batter, fully enveloped the cookie except for the black dots left by my thumb and forefinger. Frying these was easier than frying any of the other foods we attempted to recreate. Upon entry into the oil, the battered Oreo puffed like a tortilla and required just one flip. After 90 seconds, I had a golden brown crust and the kitchen smelled like chocolate brownies. Better yet, when I bit into it, the cookie was intact! The consistency was like an Oreo briefly dunked in milk. The Stuf had transformed into a smoother liquid, which was pretty appealing.
I observed restraint and only fried four cookies total, and I’m glad I did. These are filling. If this is the kind of dessert you dig at the fair, the taste of homemade fried Oreos actually exceeds what you would get there due to the freshness and Stuf control you have in your own kitchen.
None of these recipes were particularly complex—and why would they be, if they’re designed to be churned out for hundreds of carnival guests per day?—but the execution mattered a lot, especially with the kettle corn. Some tactical lessons learned:
- Get a clip-on candy thermometer so you don’t waste a free hand holding one above the frying oil.
- Think ahead about oil disposal, because all of these recipes call for a good amount. The easiest way to dispose is to pour back into the original container. I forgot to do that once, and had to pour the used oil into six plastic shopping bags.
- If you’re frying multiple things, make all your batters at once. Most of these call for a lot of the same ingredients (flour, eggs, milk) so you might as well measure and clean one time. But don’t forget to keep track of which bowl has which batter! Beer-battered Oreos aren’t sold for a reason.
- When trying a new recipe, choose a low yield so that you don’t waste all your ingredients on a first effort. Leave room to improve with future batches.
This endeavor was certainly enough to fend off the sadness of missing out on carnival season. But as soon as it’s safe to go back to the fair, my family will be first in line for whatever crispy, oily offering they debut next.