The Sopapilla is a popular New Mexican bread that can be prepared with a variety of twists. They are often served in restaurants as a dessert, but they are traditionally considered a savory side bread. Sopapillas, in the incarnation that New Mexicans recognize them, are rumored to have originated in Albuquerque more than 200 years ago.
Our sopapillas are different from Latin American sopapillas. The fried pastry dough is typically served in lieu of bread or filled with savory ingredients such as ground beef. When served for dessert, they are often drizzled with honey or anise syrup.
Puffy Pastry Pillows
A sopapilla, for those who don’t know, is a fried bread served throughout the region settled by the Spanish. The word sopaipilla is the diminutive of sopaipa, a Spanish word from a Mozarabic language called Al-Andalus. The original Mozarabic word, Xopaipa, meant bread soaked in oil. It was derived from the Germanic word Suppa, which meant bread soaked in liquid. Obviously humans figured out long ago that frying things in fat is tasty.
Sopapillas are the standard dessert for a traditional New Mexican meal. Many restaurants in New Mexico serve them as a complimentary dessert when you order an entree, like chips and salsa. If a New Mexican restaurant does not serve sopapillas, I think less of them.
They can be stuffed with meat or calabacitas and served as an entree. When stuffing sopapillas, I highly recommend smothering them in chile verde or red chile. It doesn’t really matter what you do with a sopapilla. They are tasty whether served sweet or savory.
In the process of sampling this recipe, I realized what I have been doing wrong. Sometimes my sopapillas are really puffy. Sometimes they are doughy duds. The two main variables are temperature and the thickness of the dough.
As the matriarch of two revered local restaurants, you might expect Frances to be a native of New Mexico. She wasn’t. Luis, her husband, was persuasive, with a keen eye for opportunity, traits that served him well later as the bartender of El Paragua.
Luis met Frances while visiting his brother, who was working as a miner in Arizona. Their paths crossed again in California a couple of years later when they were both visiting their brothers. Luis made the most of the opportunity, convincing Frances to marry him and move to Española.
Luis had roots in the valley dating back to the Spanish land grants bestowed during the 1600s. In Frances, Luis found a life partner, who happened to be an exceptional cook. Frances was influenced by the culinary traditions of Arizona, California (e.g. use of avocado) and New Mexico. She carved a niche in the community, making food for friends and family. As Frances and Luis had children, it was Frances’ culinary skills that paved the way for two of her entrepreneurial sons to go into business selling tacos and tamales out of a bucket on their bikes.
With six El Parasol locations and El Paragua locations fifty years later…well, that enterprise was successful. Frances’ food, and the restaurant built by Luis, provided a legacy for their children, grand-children and great grand-children. The photo of them with sopapillas says it all — this is a family that understands and appreciates the flavors of New Mexico. They have been sharing comfort food with their community for more than five decades!
Servings: Serves 2 dozen (large), 4 dozen (small)
- 1 package of active dry yeast
- ¼ cup warm water (110° F)
- 1 ½ cups milk
- 3 Tablespoons lard or shortening
- 1 ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 Tablespoons sugar
- About 4 cups all-purpose flour, unsifted
- 1 cup whole wheat flour
- Salad oil
- Dissolve yeast in warm water in a large mixing bowl.
- Combine milk, lard/shortening (does not need to melt), salt and sugar in a pan; heat to 110 °.
- Add dissolved yeast. Beat in 3 cups of all-purpose flour and all of the whole wheat flour. Stir in more flour (about ½ cup) until a sticky dough forms.
- Knead the dough on a floured board, adding more flour until it is smooth and non-sticky. Place the dough in a greased bowl, turning it to grease the top. Cover and let stand at room temperature for an hour. Punch it down.
- If you aren’t ready to make them immediately, cover and chill the dough for up to 12 hours. Otherwise, knead the dough on a lightly floured board to expel air bubbles. Roll it out in portions to avoid the dough getting too warm while you prep. Roll to slightly less than 1/8 inch thickness.
- Cut in 3.5 x 5 inch rectangles to make two dozen entrée size sopapillas. Cut in smaller portions for appetizer or dessert sopapillas.
- Place on lightly floured pans and cover while prepping. Avoid having the dough out at room temperature for more than five minutes at a time to maximize puff and fluff. If you need more time, store the excess dough in the refrigerator until ready.
- Heat 1.5 – 2 inches of salad oil to 350° in a deep, wide frying pan. Fry 2-3 sopapillas at a time. When the bread begins to puff, use a slotted spoon to push the portion of the bread where the air bubble is forming into the hot oil to help it puff evenly. Turn several times until both sides are pale gold, 1 – 2 minutes.
- Drain on paper towels.
Serve immediately or place in warm oven until you have finished frying. Sopapillas are best fresh, but if you are preparing them ahead of time, cool them, cover and chill or freeze. To reheat bake them in a oven at 300° for 5 – 8 minutes, turning once. Do not overheat or they will be more like hockey pucks than sopapillas.
Please leave your recipe modifications and/or questions in the comments below.