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”).
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.)
Approximately 30 doughnuts
2 packages active dry yeast
1/4 cup lukewarm water
1-3/4 cups whole milk, scalded
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup Crisco shortening
2 large eggs
6-1/4 to 6-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Corn oil, for frying
Confectioner’s sugar, for dusting
Dark corn syrup, for dipping
Dissolve yeast in 1/4 cup lukewarm water for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, scald milk, remove skin from surface, and place milk in a large (e.g., 6-quart) mixing bowl. Add to it the sugar, salt, and shortening and stir to dissolve shortening. Let mixture cool a little, then beat eggs well, add to the milk mixture, and stir to blend.
Add 2 cups of flour to the milk mixture and mix well. Add dissolved yeast. Beat well with mixer on medium speed for about a minute. Add the rest of the flour gradually (kneading with hands when it becomes too thick for mixer) until dough pulls from sides of bowl and forms a ball. It should be quite stiff. Smooth top and sides of dough and grease with a little shortening, then cover with a tea towel. Let dough rise for 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 hours, until a hole made in the dough with your finger doesn’t close up.
Dump dough onto a floured surface and flatten out to approximately 3/4-inch thickness. Using a knife, cut strips about 6 inches long and 3/4 inch wide. Gently roll strips between hands to form smooth ropes, then fold into knots, pretzels, twists – whatever shapes you like. For ladders, just cut out a rectangular shape, make several short slits along it with a knife, then pull slightly to create small holes. Try not to overhandle the dough.
Lay fastnachts on foil-covered cookie sheets and let rise for 3/4 hour. Meanwhile, fill a deep, heavy-bottomed pot (4-quart size works well) about half full with corn oil, leaving a space of at least two inches between oil and top of pan. (If using an electric deep-fat fryer, follow instructions for that fryer.) Heat gradually to a temperature of 365 degrees F. If you don’t have a frying thermometer, a small cube of bread will turn golden brown in about a minute when the oil is hot enough.
Slide about three fastnachts into the oil gently with a slotted spoon. Do not crowd the pot. Cook for one minute per side, flipping over with a spoon or tongs. The fastnachts should turn golden brown. If they turn very dark, reduce heat (the oil temperature will need to be readjusted throughout frying).
Remove fastnachts from oil carefully, and drain on paper towels. Serve warm, dusted with confectioner’s sugar, and dip in dark corn syrup. Fastnachts can be stored for about a week wrapped in aluminum foil. Rewarm before serving for best flavor. Makes approximately 30 fastnachts.
Karen Hammonds is a freelance food writer and editor.
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