My favorite restaurant growing up was Marilyn’s First Mexican Restaurant, right across the street from the Paradise Valley Mall in Phoenix. I always requested the hot salsa to accompany our regular chips and salsa, and if I wasn’t too full after my bean burrito (without onions) or cheese enchiladas (also without onions), I would order mud pie or fried ice cream. Very rarely did I have sopapillas.
Then we moved to Maryland — between my sophomore and junior years of high school. I was really upset. I missed my friends. I missed the sunset. I missed cacti. I missed the dry heat. I missed people who wore socks with their running shoes and had never heard of lacrosse. And I missed sopapillas.
In 1996, the only “Mexican food” options that we were aware of near-ish our house in Severna Park were Chi Chi’s (gross, but not as gross as Chi Chi’s in Belgium) and El Toro Bravo. And though we didn’t like either one, we still ate at both semi-regularly. So one night, I ordered sopapillas. And I got a plate of over-fried chips doused in cinnamon-sugar and honey. They were nothing like the sopapillas I remembered.
I’m sure experts will disagree with me here, because it appears most sopapillas are actually crispy triangles or diamonds. But the sopapillas I knew were soft, squishy balls of fried dough. It may be an Arizona thing. The 1985 “From Arizona With Love” cookbook has a similar recipe with the heading “Sopaipillas (Soft Pillows).” But whether you spell it “sopapilla” or “sopaipilla,” it doesn’t translate into “soft pillows.”
Regardless, I wanted soft sopapillas, so I made them. A lot of them. They were actually kinda my specialty in high school, if only because I never really made anything else (except Christmas cookies). Now I obviously cook all the time, but I hadn’t made sopapillas in forever. In fact, Toby had never had them. And I had never shared them with y’all. So I decided to fry some up. De Nada.
Sprinkle them with cinnamon-sugar and dip them in honey. Mmmmm. Just how I remember them.
Sopapillas (Not sure where this recipe came from originally, but probably a school or church cookbook. Makes 20 2-inch circles)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lard or Crisco (I used Crisco)
1/2 cup or more water
Oil for frying (I used canola)
Cinnamon-sugar and honey to serve
Sift flour, baking powder, sugar and salt together in a medium bowl. Using a pastry blender or your fingers, cut lard/Crisco into flour mixture until the mixture looks crumbly.
Add 1/2 cup water and mix until a soft dough forms. Add more water if necessary, a little at a time, to make dough hold together.
Knead dough 10-15 times until dough forms a smooth ball. Cover with a clean dish towel or damp paper towel and let dough stand for 20 minutes.
Heat about 3 inches of cooking oil in a small, deep pan over medium heat. Meanwhile, on a lightly floured surface, roll or pat dough out into about 1/4-inch thickness. Cut into small squares or circles. Cover dough waiting to be fried with a damp paper towel.
Flick a drop or two of water into oil and stand back. If the water sizzles, the oil is ready. If not, try turning the heat up a bit. Drop a few sopapillas into the oil, turning them so the side that was on the bottom while resting is on the top while frying. Continue frying, turning once, until golden brown.
Drain sopapillas on dry paper towels, then sprinkle with cinnamon sugar and serve warm with honey.
***Note: Sadly, Marilyn’s closed long ago. But if you are in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area, I highly recommend Ajo Al’s.