Mardi Gras food: Fastnachts doughnuts for Shrove Tuesday
Mardi Gras food consumed the day before Lent is celebrated in German-American kitchens with decadent doughnuts.
It’s funny how Lent, a period of penitence and fasting, gave rise to so much creative decadence in the days leading up to it, from parades to masked balls to sinfully rich foods. In medieval Europe, fat and sugar were forbidden in Lenten cooking, and so Shrove Tuesday, the day before the start of Lent, was a busy day in the kitchen. The English made pancakes, the Poles jelly doughnuts called paczki. In Germany, women bustled about frying up doughnuts called fastnachts (German for “Eve of the Fast”).Skip to next paragraph
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Many centuries later, my German-American grandmother followed this tradition, and although I can’t claim that her fastnacht recipe was handed down through the generations, I like to think of her tapping into this nearly ancient tradition. Her golden-brown fastnachts, dense and rich but not too sweet, achieved a near mystical perfection when dipped, still warm, in dark corn syrup and dunked in confectioner’s sugar.
My brothers and I fell under the spell of fastnachts as children, and our family would drive us for hours to visit our grandmother in Pennsylvania when she made them. She tried to do so before Lent but sometimes cheated a little on the timing, as do I now that I have taken on the fastnacht-making mantle. But I normally make them either before or early in Lent, and only once a year; their rarity is part of their charm.
The fastnacht tradition was brought to the United States by German immigrants, many of whom settled in Pennsylvania Dutch country. It eventually spread from the mid-Atlantic states to the Midwest. Some intriguing lore traveled with the fastnacht, including the notion that the oil the fastnachts were fried in had magical curative powers. Another belief was that if they were not eaten on Shrove Tuesday, bad luck would ensue – in the form of failed crops, for example, or outbreaks of boils. On a lighter note, the Pennsylvania Dutch had a Shrove Tuesday tradition in which the last person out of bed that day was nicknamed "Fastnacht" or "Lazy Fastnacht" and had to eat the last, least shapely doughnut. I don’t see how that could be much of a punishment.
Most German fastnacht recipes consist of milk, sugar, shortening, yeast, eggs, and flour. Pennsylvania Dutch recipes generally include potatoes, and they also specify a rectangular shape, which after cooking is sliced in half like a bagel and spread with syrup or molasses. But my grandmother followed the German tradition of making all sorts of shapes, from knots and braids to pretzels and ladder-like rectangles. The pretzel itself has a Lenten derivation, and according to legend, the shape was invented by a seventh-century monk who wanted it to symbolize two arms crossed in prayer.
Whatever their origin, the shapes of fastnachts seem to subtly influence their flavor. One of my brothers swears by the ladders, while I prefer the knots and pretzels, which pull apart nicely and have pale nooks and crannies that are slightly moister.
Fastnachts are more time-consuming to make than difficult. There are two challenges: working enough flour into the dough, which is easier if you mix it in a very large bowl; and keeping the frying oil at the right temperature. It’s ideal to learn a dish like this at a patient grandmother’s side, but my grandmother Helen Keeley’s recipe, below, is full of detail and should produce good results for everyone. (And for those who want to follow the rules, Shrove Tuesday falls on March 8th this year.)