The fun that goes into making funnel cake
There’s something about greasy carbohydrates that draws everyone to them, from fast food like Kentucky Fried Chicken to gourmet delicacies like Vodka Tempura batter by Chef Nobu Matsuhisa — yes, they use vodka instead of water because the high alcohol content generates no steam when the tempuras are fried.
But at Carnegie Mellon University’s Spring Carnival 2009, there’s nothing complicated or fancy about funnel cakes and fried Oreos, as they are simple, straightforward, and delicious.
Every year during Carnival, the brothers (and sisters) of Alpha Phi Omega build the concession booth, selling carnival staples like funnel cake, nachos, hot dogs, and deep-fried Oreos. Students campus-wide look forward to Carnival, not only for Booth and Buggy, but also for some funnel cake.
“I can feel my arteries clogging, but these fried Oreos are so delicious,” said Christine Chen, a sophomore psychology major who served up fried Oreos and funnel cake from the frying station in Alpha Phi Omega booth. For those who are not familiar with them, fried Oreos are Oreos dipped in funnel cake batter and deep fried at 400ºF until golden brown.
Funnel cake batter is made from funnel cake mix, stacked up high in the back of the booth, combined with water in an industrial-size electric mixer. The batter is made throughout the day as the funnel cakes are prepared so that no excess batter is left behind.
The kitchen also has a restaurant-quality electric mixer, three professional shallow fryers for the funnel cake, one deep fryer for the fried Oreos, two ovens — one for soft pretzels and one for pizza — a pretzel heater, a pizza warmer, and four to five steamers for hot dogs, buns, hot sausages, and cheese sauce, in addition to a popcorn machine, three coffee heaters, three registers, and three beverage fridges. At the back of the booth, there’s a running tap with a sink for cleaning, and the brothers install all the electric wire that runs through the booth.
Aside from large appliances, there are stacks of paper plates, napkins, foam cups, and kitchen utensils like tongs and strainers. There’s a three-speaker sound system and a radio for entertainment. This is a serious mobile kitchen.
For a closed space with four fryers, the air inside the concession stand is not as stuffy as expected. With the two register openings and exits, there is plenty of room for air circulation. On one side of the booth, where all the fryers are stationed, it tends to get warmer and more humid as the water from the batter evaporates, but as lovely as the sunny weather is outside, it is rather nice that this kitchen is under a roof, protecting the chefs from sunburns.
Ellen Tworkoski, a sophomore materials science and engineering major, said that Alpha Phi Omega “owns everything in the kitchen, except for the beverage fridges that Pepsi lends them.” Apart from selling funnel cake and fried Oreos at Carnival, Alpha Phi Omega also sells them at university football games throughout the year.
For some brothers of Alpha Phi Omega, the day starts at 8 a.m. They have to come and open the booth, prepare the batter, and fill the fridge with drinks to start selling at 10 a.m. and continue non-stop until 11 p.m.
Earlier in the day, when there isn’t a long line of customers waiting, each funnel cake is fried to order. Around one o’clock, with more people walking around the Carnival, the line grows longer and all three shallow fryers are working at the same time, each of them frying two funnel cakes simultaneously while the deep fryer constantly fries Oreos.
Each funnel cake is unique. Aside from its circular shape, the texture and the color of the funnel cake depends on the batter and the person who cooks them. The thickness of the batter differs depending on the funnels used. The lighter the batter, the thinner each swirl is, and the cake ends up crisper. Thicker batter means thicker swirls with a softer, more cake-like texture inside the crisp surface. Some cakes take on a pale gold color while the other might become a deep golden brown. As Michael Klipper, a graduate student in mathematical sciences, who guarded the register on Friday morning, said, “You have to appreciate the swirl of funnel cake.”
Last year, a little girl who attended Carnival asked for an ice cream, and began to cry when she found out that Alpha Phi Omega did not have any ice cream for sale. Today, they sell ice cream, too.
One of the strangest orders they have ever received is for a “slightly uncooked” funnel cake — a funnel cake that just starts to set in the fryer and doesn’t catch on any color yet, tasting slightly like cake dough.
With soundtracks from Jason Mraz, Cobie Caillat, and Coldplay in the background, the mood in the booth was quite relaxed. Instead of running around like headless chickens trying to get everything in order, the brothers are unexpectedly calm, even dancing along with Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” while serving up delicious, fun food.