Tomorrow is Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent. In New Orleans, they will celebrate Mardi Gras (“fat Tuesday”), but here in the Lehigh Valley and anywhere else in America where there is a critical mass of Pennsylvania Germans, we’ll celebrate Fasnacht Daag (“the night before the fast”). Both terms hint at the origin of this day: An attempt to use up the sugar and animal fats in a household before the 40 days of Lenten fasting.
We Pennsylvania “Dutch” use our fats by eating a doughnutlike cake called a Fasnacht. A tastier way to celebrate has never been devised. The Fasnacht is cakier and less sweet than a doughnut. My ancestors probably would have drizzled them with simple syrup or sorghum; bakers who make Fasnachts these days offer versions covered with powdered or granulated sugar, or glazed. Since these treats were once made in staggeringly massive quantities—large farm families were the rule—doughnut cutters were usually dispensed with and the dough cut into rectangles with a slit in the center. (My local bakery made 38,000 Fasnachts in 2007. Cutting out that many little circles would give them carpal tunnel syndrome.) To me, if it’s round, it’s not a Fasnacht. But some people like to eat the “holes,” so who am I to judge? Here are the doughnut cutters that were passed down from my mother and great-aunt:
The Fasnacht recipe below is the least voluminous one I could find. Some recipes called for 5 quarts of flour! This one is from an old cookbook my mother used. The author, Edna Eby Heller, grew up in Lititz, in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, and learned the art of that cuisine from her mother as they fed 18 boarders in their rooming house. Old-time cooks seldom used specific measurements, since they “knew” how much of each ingredient to add so that the dish “got right,” having learned at their mothers’ elbows. Thankfully, Edna translated their recipes into modern recipe style and published them in five cookbooks. She died in 2009 at the age of 94.
Since these delicacies are made only once a year, children eagerly anticipate them. In the old days, the last child out of bed on Fasnacht Day would be called a “lazy Fasnacht,” and would get only one Fasnacht to eat. Also, the leftover fat used for frying the dough was used to grease garden and farming implements, as it was believed that this would ensure a bountiful harvest.
Some recipes call for the dough to rise overnight, but this variation has a shorter start-to-finish time.
1 medium potato, pared and sliced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs, well beaten
1 teaspoon salt
1 package dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
6 cups sifted flour
Shortening for deep-fat frying
1. Cook the pared and sliced potato in salted water until tender. Drain, reserving 1 1/2 cups of the potato water. Melt the butter in this hot water. Mash the potato and measure 1/4 cup. In a large bowl, beat the potato with the sugar until blended (using an electric mixer you’d like). Add the eggs and salt and mix well. Gradually add the potato water. Dissolve the yeast in 1/4 cup warm water and add. Beat in half of the flour and then mix in the last 3 cups by hand. The dough will be soft.
2. Knead on a well-floured surface until smooth and elastic. Place the dough in a greased bowl, then turn the dough upside down so the top surface is greased. Cover and let rise in a warm place, free from draft, until doubled in bulk, 2 to 3 hours.
3. Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead 1 minute. Divide the dough in half. Roll each half into a rectangle 1/3 inch thick. With a pastry wheel or knife, cut into 2-by-3-inch rectangles, making slits an inch long in the center of each. Place on a tablecloth, away from any draft, and cover with a cloth to rise again until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
4. Fry a few at a time in deep fat at 375°F. Drain on paper towels. Roll in granulated sugar, if desired.
Start to finish time: 5 hours
Makes 3 dozen
Adapted from The Art of Pennsylvania Dutch Cooking, by Edna Eby Heller (Galahad Books, 1968).