Ashland – Oct. 2017
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Queen of Southwestern Cooking: Jane Butel

Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA.

Jane Butel Instructing

Southwestern Cooking Instructor and Cookbook Author Extradinaire.

Jane Butel could make sopaipillas in her sleep. The delicate pillows of fried dough are the doughnut of the Southwest and Jane’s made a million of them.

A dozen of us have crowded into her art-filled, adobe-style home on the outskirts of Albuquerque, New Mexico, to learn the secrets of this ubiquitous treat. 

Jane’s hands are a blur as she stirs the all-purpose flour and lard together. “Lard is much better for you than shortening,” she says. “It’s good for the brain, for the skin, and it has much less cholesterol.”

Though she could use a dough hook, Jane uses her fingers to mix in the lard to better feel when the dough is ready. “You don’t want to use a pie cutter,” she admonishes. “You’ll be chasing that little bit of lard around the bowl forever. You also don’t want to work this dough too much or it’ll be tough.”

Jane teaches cooking classes like today’s, leads cooking tours, and sells hard-to-find ingredients like Caribe chili. Author of 18 cookbooks on Southwest cooking, including Real Women Eat Chiles, Chili Madness, and Hotter than Hell: Hot and Spicy Dishes from Around the World, she’s the undisputed queen of chile cooking **.

Jane Butel cooking in kitchen

Sopaipillas require a light hand and quick fry. Jane Butel carefully watches over the fryer as sopaipillas cook. Overfrying will make them dry and tough.

She turns the soft ball of dough onto the kitchen’s large granite island and covers with the bowl. Hans, Jane’s one-year-old black and tan doxie, is delighted to have guests. He wanders from one person to the next, begging ear rubs and bestowing puppy kisses whenever he gets the chance.

“I want to tell you about chiles because they’re so much a 
part of New Mexican cooking,” she says. “There are 7,010 varieties of chile. The fresh green Anaheim chile we have here in New Mexico is highly perishable and can get salmonella. Also, on one bush, you can get 35 different levels of heat.”

Although a lot of cooks use dried chile pods, Jane says the pods require “an additional 45 minutes of cooking time” because they have to be rehydrated. Instead, she prefers dried chile powders. She pours out four tiny piles of chile powder onto a plate. They vary in color from bright red to burnt orange. “Most commercial chile power you buy in the store has added salt and preservatives like silicates to keep it from caking and diethylene oxide to retain the color. I prefer to use pure chile powders that I keep in my freezer.”

Assorted chili powders that Jane Butel uses

An assortment of chile powders.

She explains that mild chile contains 5,000 Scoville units, the measure of hotness; hot chile, what she calls “sissy chile” has about 10,000 units. Everyone’s tongue has different numbers of receptors that perceive hotness (from 10 to 200 with women having more than men). That’s why different people can tolerate varying levels of heat. The hottest chile, the habenero, contains 500,000 Scoville units.

“If you get too much heat, you can cut it with citrus like lime, or tequila, or with anything fat and sweet like the sopaipillas.”

The sopaipilla dough Jane started a while ago has risen and it glistens with the lard. She kneads it, turning it expertly as she goes. “You want the dough to be nice and responsive.”

It’s soft to the touch. She cuts it into four equal pieces and then rolls it out, slightly thicker than pie dough, being careful not to run over the edges and thin them too much. Then she scores the oval in a tic-tac-toe fashion into eight equal pieces.

The oil in the fryer is a hot 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Jane stretches each piece of dough lightly with her fingers and drops two or three vertically into the oil. Then she jiggles each piece with tongs to keep them under the oil. “That’s the secret to making them fill with air and puff up like pillows,” she says, as she retrieves the dough pieces from the oil before they’re even brown. “Don’t fry them too long or they’ll be tough and dry.”

sopailillas made by Jane Butel

Light and tender sopailillas, yum!

These sopaipillas are light and tender. We eagerly drizzle them with local honey, smearing our hands and faces with the sweet stuff. Delicious! Thanks, Jane. Here’s the recipe.

[** A note about the spelling of the word chile. The word “chile” is Spanish and is the spelling used in New Mexico. We are using this spelling for all forms of chile, including the pod, the powder, and dishes made with chile.]

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Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor

RFT co-founder Bobbie Hasselbring has been a travel junkie her entire life. An award-winning writer and editor for more than 25 years and author of the regional food-travel bestsellers, The Chocolate Lover’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest and The Chocolate Lover’s Guide Cookbook, Bobbie is editor-in-chief at