When I lived in New York, my friends and I always had tamaladas, a tamale making party. Most of us grew up with it in our home states of Texas and New Mexico, and it was a good excuse to get together, cook, and eat. Plus, we would enjoy fresh tamales later.
Tamales and I were no strangers, but a year ago a friend from south Texas suggested we add buñuelos to our menu. Although I had heard of these Tex-Mex treats, I had never eaten them before.
I asked her what it was all about, and she said it was essentially a flour tortilla that was fried until crisp and puffy and then coated in cinnamon sugar. It sounded something like a sopapille to me, and she agreed the two were similar.
My love for sopapillas is long-standing, and having been eating them for as long as I have enjoyed tamales, I was hooked on this supplement. And indeed, buñuelo dough resembled a flour tortilla dough in that it was a mixture of flour, liquid, baking powder, and fat.
We rolled out the buñuelos like we were flouring tortillas. To cook them, we heated a pan with oil and then placed the slices in the hot fat. When they hit the oil, they puffed up quickly and crispy. After both sides had turned a warm golden brown, we took them out, brushed them with melted butter, and then sprinkled them liberally with a cinnamon and sugar mixture. I couldn’t wait to get a taste.
Luckily they cooled quickly and I grabbed one of the pastries. The first bite was crunchy, sweet, and fluffy, although the batter was also lightly chewed. It wasn’t as soft as a sopapille, but it wasn’t any less comfortable. It was also an excellent vehicle for cinnamon and sugar, although much like Sopapillen, we also had honey on hand for dipping.
The story goes that the South Texas version of buñuelos (pronounced bun-way-lows) rose in popularity in 1968 when Tony Specia and David Carter served them from a stand at Hemisfair in San Antonio. After the festival, they opened a shop and soon after, several buñuelo manufacturing plants opened as well.
Specia and Carter may have been the first to have their own buñuelo bakery in Texas, but they’ve long been a homemade delicacy in Texas Mexican homes. They were also reported to be served commercially in El Paso in the early 1900s.
The pastry originally came from Spain, where the word means donut, and it began as a Sephardic Jewish tradition eaten during Hanukkah. Although it is now popular with people of all faiths and you will find variations of it throughout Latin America.
In Mexico, for example, it is a fried disk, either round or rosette, served with a piloncillo syrup flavored with anise and cloves. In Colombia, it is a fried ball with lemon zest and olive oil added to the batter. In Cuba they are served as puffy eights.
The Tex-Mex version can take the form of either a fried disk or a rose design, much like its Mexican counterpart. Although often served with the syrup is hot chocolate or champurrado for dipping, or honey like we ate. They are also pure pleasure.
Except in San Antonio, they haven’t been very common on Tex-Mex restaurant menus, but they’re growing in popularity, and I suppose that could be changing. For example, the batter is a quick batter that doesn’t need to rise, and if you’re frying tortilla chips, for example, there’s no reason to put a buñuelo in the fryer as well.
When I first ate them, I wondered if orange zest and juice would be savory additions. Maybe not traditional, but while researching recipes I discovered that San Antonio’s Mi Tierra batter contains orange juice. I followed her example with a batch and actually added a light sweetness that paired well with the warm cinnamon.
Buñuelos are traditionally served at Christmas and New Year, but are welcome anytime. Here’s my take, inspired by my friend from South Texas.
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South Texas style buñuelos
portions 16 bunuelos
For the bunuelos:
- ¾ Cup water
- ¼ Cup orange juice
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon shortening
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 cups all purpose flour
- 2 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 tablespoon fresh orange zest
- 1 teaspoon Cinammon
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- flour for rolling
- Safflower oil, for frying
- honey, for serving
- 1/2 Cup sugar
- 2 tablespoon Cinammon
- 1 tablespoon fresh orange zest
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- 4 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
For the buñuelo dough, place the water, orange juice, butter, and fat in a saucepan and heat over medium-high heat until the butter and fat have melted. Turn off the heater.
Add vanilla, flour, sugar, baking powder, orange zest, cinnamon and salt to the liquid. Stir until everything is well combined and a soft dough forms. Place the dough in a clean bowl, cover and let rest for 1 hour.
Meanwhile, for the topping, mix together the sugar, cinnamon, orange zest, and salt.
After the dough has rested, divide the dough into 16 equal sized balls. Keep the dough covered until rolled out. Tear off a 2 foot piece of parchment paper that will be used for the rolled out buñuelos.
Lightly flour a clean surface and place one ball of dough at a time on the floured surface, pat out into a 2-inch circle, then use a rolling pin to roll out from the center until thin and about 1/4″ in diameter has 6 inches.
Place the rolled buñuelo on the parchment paper, repeat the process for the remaining balls, flouring the rolling surface as needed.
When ready to fry, line a sheet pan with paper towels. Pour 1 inch of the oil into a large cast-iron skillet or heavy-duty skillet. Heat the oil on medium-high and when a thermometer reads 350°F or the oil is bubbling around an inserted wooden spoon (it should take about 3-5 minutes to reach this point), using a slotted spatula, scrape one of the raw, rolled buñuelos into the oil.
It will start to bunch up right away, so press down on it to keep it from ballooning too much. (Bubbles add texture and character to the finished buñuelo, so don’t worry if there are a few.) After 30 seconds, flip the buñuelo and continue cooking until crisp, about 1 minute.
Remove from the oil and place the fried buñuelo on the tray lined with paper towels. For the topping, brush the top with melted butter and sprinkle with a few teaspoons of orange cinnamon sugar while still warm. Repeat the process for the remaining buñuelos, stacking them so each side can be coated.
Serve warm with honey to drizzle, if desired. They will keep in a sealed container for a few days, although they are best eaten fresh. You can also reheat them in the oven for a few minutes.