New Mexicans, in general, and Las Cruces folk, in particular, are laid-back.
They keep family close and don’t mind staying put. Experiencing places and flavors already familiar and beloved is what floats their foodie boats.
Could be it’s the legacy of small-town life.
Las Cruces is New Mexico’s second-largest city, yet it’s population tops out at a whopping 100,000.
(What you may be sensing in my last statement is not sarcasm but AMAZEment.)
Because Flatbush alone, the Brooklyn neighborhood where I grew up, has more than 100,000 people.)
So LC is a small enough place where, six months in, you learn everyone you meet is somehow related to someone you’ve already met.
A place where, when it comes to food, an Olive Garden is okay . . . but the food at the restaurant owned by your neighbor or friend’s cousin is better.
And the absolute best is whatever your mother or grandmother makes.
Sopapillas are a sweet New Mexico taste of home.
The sopapilla is a fried quick bread eaten throughout New Mexico.
The word sopapilla means “soup catcher.” Andalusian Spaniards brought the word with the concept it represents ~ bread drenched in broth or some other liquid, then eaten ~ to the Americas during Spain’s Golden Age.
The ingredients for making sopapillas are simple whether you intend for them to “catch” soup, honey, or a dish of beans. Probably everything you need to make them is in your kitchen right now.
As a quick bread, it requires combining flour with a leavening agent, most often, baking powder. Other dry ingredients include small amounts of salt and sometimes sugar. To these, you add shortening and water or milk to make a dough.
Then, you roll out the dough and cut it into shapes ~ typically triangles ~ large enough to hold in your hand with corners small enough to fit in your mouth.
Finally, you deep-fry those doughy triangles HOT and FAST.
And within seconds out pop ~ literally! ~ fresh sopapillas, cushy-soft and hollowed-out on the inside, crunchy golden brown on the outside.
Sopapillas come in 3 basic versions, always warm ~ savory stuffed, plain, and sweet.
- Go the savory route and you’ll find the same bean, cheese, and meat fillings as you might in an enchilada.
- Order a plain sopapilla as a side dish.
In New Mexico, where the main plate often contains chile, you’ll be glad you did for reasons beyond the great taste. Especially if you have a tender tongue, the bread will help absorb some of the heat from the chile so you can savor more, suffer less.
The honey accompanying your order also helps with the burn. Dip freely and often.
- Cinnamon sugar is the most popular covering for dessert or sweet sopapillas. Go all out by dipping in or filling with honey.
So, where to get a good recipe for sopapillas?
After sampling sopapillas at restaurants recommended by my Las Cruces friends, I ran to the local library and then my laptop to research how to make my own.
Recipe after recipe differed as to whether you made the dough with milk or water, fried it with lard, vegetable oil, or shortening.
Should I add sugar? Or not?
Finally, I opted for a recipe from the place they recommended most: Home.
I listened to a few stories about Mom’s or Abuelita’s sopapillas, what they put in them, did and didn’t do, and between sighs of anticipation, wrote notes.
In the end, here is the recipe I came up with.
Recipe for Sopapillas
- 1 1/2 cups organic all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 1/2 tablespoons lard
- 3/4 cup warm milk
- neutral tasting oil for frying (i.e. canola, corn)
- Blend all three dry ingredients together in a large bowl.
- Cut the lard into small chunks and add it to the bowl, tossing lightly to cover.
- Add warm milk.
- Mix quickly with a fork to form a mass of dough.
- On a well-floured surface, knead the dough by pressing it down and folding it in half. Repeat this process 10-12 times, until the dough is no longer sticky.
- Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let it rest for 13 minutes.
- AFTER the dough has rested:
- Turn on the heat under a pot containing cooking oil an inch deep.
- Divide the dough in half; cover one half with plastic wrap, then set it aside while you work with the other.
- Re-flour your work surface and roll the dough half to a thickness of 1/8 inch or just under. *The thinner your dough, the puffier your sopapillas.
- The result will be a rectangular sheet of dough about 8″ x 10″.
- Trim off small strips as needed to even your rectangle’s edges. Then cut the rectangle in half, and cut each of the resulting two pieces in half again (for a total of 4 squares). Finally, cut each square diagonally in half, to form triangles.
- Once the oil reaches 380 degrees (use a digital food thermometer to check), slide one triangle in the hot oil and then another, so you’re cooking two sopapillas at the same time.
- The sopapillas should begin to puff and rise to the surface right away ~ if they don’t, could be the oil isn’t hot enough.
- After 20-30 seconds for browning, use a slotted spoon to turn each sopapilla over.
- After another 20-30 seconds have passed, remove the sopapillas from the hot oil with the same spoon.
- Place them on a large plate covered with paper towels to drain.
- Take the second half of dough from under the plastic wrap and roll it out, cut, and fry it as you did the first half. (Ensure the oil doesn’t overheat as you work.)
- Fry up any remaining scraps of dough, including those cut off to perfect your rectangle. These will taste delicious, too!
- While your sopapillas are still warm, sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. With sugar only. Or leave them plain.
How do I know this sopapillas recipe is a keeper?
Hubby “L” just knocked down one of these fresh cinnamon sugar sopapillas, and then a second one, with his morning coffee ~ my definition of success!
Hope you’ll enjoy the recipe and your results just as much.
1) Eat sopapillas at a restaurant known for them so you’ll know what to aim for in your own cooking. In Las Cruces, this means a trip to El Sombrero Patio Cafe, Nopalito’s, or Sí Senor for dessert AND savory stuffed sopapillas that will amaze you.
2) Sweeten your dessert sopapillas with local raw honey instead of the mass-produced kind. You’ll notice the richer texture right away and will have fun choosing from the variety of flavors available.
3) For a change: swap out the raw honey with piloncillo syrup. This is syrup made with cinnamon, anise, and piloncillo, a form of unrefined natural dark brown sugar that is a staple in Mexican ~ and southern New Mexican 😉 ~ households. (Best with plain sopapillas since “piloncillo anything” with a sweet sopapilla would be too sugary . . . as if you’re mainlining the stuff.)
Feature image, Las Cruces 3465, by Joseph j7uy5.