Nicholas R Peña
New Mexico's Sopapilla Recipe & The History of the "Soup Catcher"
Whether you grew up in New Mexico, visited at some point, or relocated to our Land Of Enchantment, there is one thing we all have in common... The memory of your first bite of the warm little pillows of fried dough topped with sweet caramel colored honey that we call Sopapillas. There are many theories as to how the Sopapilla or "Soup Catcher" came to find a home in Southwestern cuisine and more specifically in New Mexico.
The most adopted theory comes from the olive oil soaked Sopaipa that originated in Spain from the influence of Jewish and Moorish cultures and eventually found their way to North America when the Spanish arrived in 1521. Another theory comes from the rations of lard and flour that were given out to Native Americans by the U.S. government at interment camps, later known as reservations, similar to Bosque Redondo. The necessity to stretch rations inevitably lead to the origination of a "quick bread" that could be cooked or fried on the go and eaten in various ways. The Sopapilla can be enjoyed as a side of bread, stuffed with savory ingredients like beans and chile, or enjoyed as a dessert with honey similar to a beignet.
However these sweet little clouds of deliciousness arrived, we are sure happy they found us.
New Mexican Sopapilla Recipe
1½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons vegetable oil, shortening, or lard (In New Mexico we mostly use lard)
¼ cup milk or evaporated milk, at room temperature
½ cup lukewarm water or more as needed
Vegetable oil for deep frying
Stir together the flour, salt, baking powder, and the optional sugar in a large bowl.
Work in the oil, using clean fingers to combine. Add the milk and water, working the liquids into the flour until a sticky dough forms. Pour in a bit more water if the dough isn’t sticking together as a rough shaggy mess.
Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface vigorously for 1 minute. The dough should be soft but feeling a bit sturdy and no longer sticky.
Let the dough rest, covered with a damp cloth, for 15 minutes. Divide the dough into 3 balls, cover the balls with the damp cloth, and let them rest for another 15 to 30 minutes.
Roll out each ball of dough on a lightly floured surface into a circle or rectangle approximately ¼-inch thick. If you have a tortilla roller, use it rather than a heavier rolling pin, which compacts the dough more.
Trim off any ragged edges and discard them. To avoid toughening the dough, try to avoid re-rolling it. Cut each portion of dough into 4 wedges or smaller rectangles.
Heat at least 3 inches of oil in a heavy, high-sided saucepan or skillet to 400° F.
Slip 1 or 2 dough pieces into the oil. After sinking briefly, the sopapillas should begin to balloon and rise back to the surface.
Once they start bobbing at the top, carefully spoon oil over them for the few seconds it will take until they have fully puffed. Turn them over (we like a long-handled slotted spoon for this) and cook just until they are golden. Drain.
Arrange the sopapillas in a napkin-lined basket and serve immediately with honey. Tear a corner off your sopapilla to let steam escape, drizzle honey through the hole into the hollow center, and enjoy.