Nearly every cuisine I’m aware of has a deep-fried fritter that is puffy and flaky. The Northern New Mexico version is the sopaipilla. I first had them during a visit with my aunt and uncle in Los Alamos when I was ten yers old. I liked the treat so much that I brought the recipe back home with me and tried to make them – probably with not much success. Since then I’ve had countless sopaipillas, some delicious, some not very good, some light and fluffy, some greasy.
The most memorable sopaipillas I never had were at the Cactus Taqueria in Dumas, Texas. On a long road trip, our family had stopped for lunch. After we had placed our order, one of the kids went to the restroom only to report on return that there was a dead cow in the kitchen. When I checked it out for myself, sure enough there was a black and white spotted cow lying in the kitchen with its four legs stuck straight up. That should have been our first clue to leave, but we decided to wait for our food.
While we were eating we noticed three cowboys at a nearby table. The waitress brought them their traditional complimentary basket of sopaipillas for dessert. The men ate the puffs with honey and then stuck the squeeze bottle of honey in their mouths, sucking out the last few drops. We left before we got our dessert.
Sopaipillas make great containers for both sweet and savory foods. Traditionally, they are served with honey (although traditionally it is expected that you put the honey container back on the table instead of your mouth) but they are also delicious when filled with stew or chili.
The real thing should be made with lard, but you can substitute vegetable shortening.
If you are trying to make them for the first time, you may have difficulty in getting them to puff. The two secrets are that you need to make sure the deep-frying oil is hot enough, and you can hasten the process by holding the frying sopiapilla under the surface of the frying oil for a few seconds using a spatula.
The frying oil should be hotter (400° F) than the usual 350° F recommended for deep frying. I have suggested using peanut oil because it has a smoke point above that temperature even though sopaipillas are traditionally fried in hot lard with a smoke point below 400° F. I used my new infra-red thermometer to measure the surface temperature of the oil. That was amazingly similar to the temperature that I got with an instant-read probe. Use whatever thermometer you want as long as it will register the temperature of deep-frying oil.
If the sopaipillas don’t puff up right away in the hot oil, they won’t puff, but you can still eat them, covered with honey, with a fork.
- 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons lard
- ¼ cup water
- powdered sugar (optional)
- Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Cut in the lard with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles cornmeal.
- Add the water and knead gently until the dough comes together. If it is too sticky, add a little more flour. If it is too dry add a little more water a few drops at a time. The dough should form a a firm, smooth, ball.
- Turn the dough onto a floured surface. Flatten it out with the palm of your hand. Then fold it in half. Repeat this process 10 or so times. Then form the dough into a ball, cover it with plastic wrap, and let rest for 15 minutes.
- With a rolling pin, roll the dough into a rectangle about 1/8 inch thick. Cut into squares, rectangles, or triangles about 6 inches on a side.
- Cover the cut pieces with a cloth to keep them from drying out before you fry them.
- Heat at least 3 inches of peanut oil in a heavy skillet or deep-frying pot to 400°F. When the oil is hot, drop one or two pieces of dough into the oil and hold them under the surface of the oil with a spatula for a few seconds until they begin to puff. Fry the sopaipillas on both sides until they are golden brown.
- Remove the fried fritters to drain on several thicknesses of paper toweling. Then transfer to an oven heated to 200°F to keep them warm until you have finished frying the remaining dough pieces.
- Serve immediately while still hot. If you wish, you can sprinkle them generously with powdered sugar or a mixture of cinnamon and sugar. Serve with honey for a dessert or serve them plain if you want to fill them with stew or chili. They are also delicious just plain with butter.