Although there’s much to be said for the games and rides on the midway, a trip to the fair is also an excuse for even the healthiest eaters to indulge in fried treats. One of the simplest of these is known as elephant ears, “scones” — nothing like the British version — or plain old fried dough. Topped with anything from powdered sugar to jam or maple syrup, it’s a comforting and tasty echo of childhood memories.
Use your favorite bread recipe to make the dough, or keep things simple by using store-bought frozen bread, pizza or dinner-roll dough. The results will be closest to your fairground memory if you shun artisanal or multi-grain dough in favor of dough for a plain sandwich loaf, but feel free to experiment and see which types you like best. Dinner roll doughs, which are typically softer and slightly sweet, are an especially suitable starting point. Whichever dough you choose, divide it into tennis-ball sized portions and flatten it into rounds or oblongs, roughly 4 to 5 inches or whatever size fits your fryer. Let these rest for a few minutes, while you bring the oil up to temperature.
Deep frying at home is simplest and safest with a thermostatically controlled countertop fryer, which you can simply plug in and set for 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it reaches its operating temperature, slide the rounds of dough one at a time into the hot oil and cook them for 20 to 40 seconds per side, until they’re puffed and golden. If you don’t have a deep fryer, clip a deep-fry or candy thermometer to the side of a narrow, oil-filled saucepan, and adjust the burner until it holds steady at the same 375 F. With either cooking method, carefully remove the finished fried dough from the fat with a pair of tongs, and drain it on brown paper or paper towels.
If you don’t have a deep fryer, shallow-frying in an electric skillet is a good alternative. Set the skillet’s thermostat to 375 F, and fry the dough as you would in a deep fryer. Alternatively, you can use a regular skillet and simply gauge the oil’s temperature by the first piece of dough you fry. If the oil doesn’t bubble and foam around the dough, and if the first side isn’t golden after 45 seconds at most, it’s not hot enough. If the dough browns almost immediately, or if the oil smokes, it’s too hot. If you’d prefer to use less fat, simply spray or oil the pan as you would for pancakes, and fry the dough that way. It will still be good, though without the all-over golden color of the fairground variety.
A thick dusting of powdered confectioner’s sugar is a traditional and visually attractive topping for fried dough, though you’ll find it quickly melts on the hot treat. Specialty shops carry a “no-melt” version for bakers, and you could probably buy a pound from your local bakery if you asked. Cinnamon sugar is a popular alternative, or maple syrup if you live in syrup country. Jams, jellies and more sophisticated glazes are less traditional, but perfectly valid if you enjoy them. For a 19th-century take on the theme, serve the fried doughs with a drizzle of molasses or sorghum at the side for dipping.
References and ResourcesRhodes Bread: Fry Bread, Scones or Elephant Ears
WOUB Public Media: Elephant Ears -- An American Food and A Midwest Favorite