New Year's Day on the Kansas prairie might be cold, gray, and gloomy. Sometimes hedgerows disappeared in snow and country lanes were blocked so no car could pass.
But inside mom's kitchen, all was bright, sunny, warm, and fragrant with expectation. This was the day - and the only day - when she made portzelki, an old tradition among Mennonites who lived in Russia.
Portzelki are made from a spongy yeast batter. When dropped by spoonfuls into hot, deep fat, they puff up, tumble over, and fry to a golden brown. Portzel, in Low German, means tumbling over and is akin to the High German purzeln. That's how they earned their name.
Usually mom's portzelki were ready by noon. Crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, loaded with raisins, and buried in a blizzard of sugar - this treat had no equal.
A plateful of these warm fritters, a pitcher of cold milk - that was lunch. Everyone ate portzelki and only portzelki until we fairly burst with satisfaction.
Cakes and pastries fried in deep oil are eaten in several Northern European countries to mark the New Year.
Doughnuts, fritters, and Krapfen play an important part in German festivities , but they were eaten mainly at New Year as a symbol of affluence and a ''fat year.''
Russian Mennonite women brought portzelki recipes from their colonies in the Ukraine, but the recipes probably originated in the Netherlands, where for centuries Mennonites made a New Year's fritter called oliebollen (oh'-lee-bow-len), made with raisins and apples.
Portzelki are best served fresh. They can be frozen plain and reheated and sugared. You may also start them at night and finish in the morning with warm fritters for a late New Year's Day breakfast. Portzelki (New Year's Fritters) 3/4 cup milk 1/4 cup margarine 1/2 cup sugar 1 package active dry yeast 1/4 cup lukewarm water 1 teaspoon sugar 1 teaspoon grated orange rind 1 teaspoon vanilla 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, optional 2 eggs 1 cup raisins, steamed
In small saucepan, scald milk; remove from heat and add margarine and 1/2 cup sugar. Stir until margarine is melted; set aside to cool.
In large bowl of electric mixer, combine yeast, water, and 1 teaspoon sugar. Stir briskly. Let stand 5 minutes to bubble.
Mix orange rind and vanilla into cooled milk mixture and add yeast mixture.
Mix flour with salt and nutmeg. Add 1/2 flour mixture to liquid mixture, beating until well blended. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add another cup flour and beat 5 minutes with electric mixer. Gradually add remaining flour.
Stir in cooled raisins. Increase raisins to 1 1/2 cups if desired. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and set in warm place to rise until doubled in bulk.
In an electric skillet or heavy saucepan, heat 2 inches of oil to 375 degrees F.
With 2 iced-tea spoons, shape small portions of batter into balls. Cook in hot oil, turning when golden brown. Be sure inside is well done.
Drain on paper towels. While still warm, roll in granulated or powdered sugar. Serve warm.
Fritters may be frozen and reheated, then sugared before serving.
Makes about 2 1/2 dozen 3-inch fritters.