The season goes by many names. Shrovetide in the larger English-speaking world, Carnival or Carnevale in large parts of southern Europe and Central and South America , Karneval in the Rhineland, Fasching in Austria and here in Bavaria where I live, Mardi Gras in parts of the American South, Fastnacht in Alemannic German-speaking Europe and among the Pennsylvania Dutch…
I don’t think I need to explain too much that, by and large, the season leading up to Shrove Tuesday is about partying, dancing, drinking, and general excess in the time before the sobriety of the Lenten fast. Bright costumes, alcohol, rich food, lampooning politicians and world events, parades, loud music, and dancing are all common elements of the season throughout the world. And in the last days leading up to Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the great fasting season, every culture has their own array of foods that (historically) use up the last of the fat, eggs, dairy, meat, and sugar in the pantry that would then appear again on the Easter table.
In large parts of Central Europe, that manifests itself these days in local sorts of doughnuts. Throughout Germany and Austria they’re variations on what we in the US would call a jelly doughnut. A round ball of enriched dough, deep-fried, filled with some sort of jelly or jam, dusted with powdered sugar or rolled in granulated sugar, and eaten to excess in offices and classrooms, at breakfast tables, coffee breaks and probably even for that cheeky midnight snack in the weeks between the end of Christmas and Ash Wednesday.
They also love to fight about what they’re called; the standard term in large swaths of north and western Germany is “Berliner,” which in a famous yet untrue story had President Kennedy referring to himself as a jelly doughnut in a well-known speech of his. The Berliners themselves, in turn, refer to them as Pfannkuchen. This literally translates to pancakes and is the standard German word for the thin, eggy, European-style pancakes, which causes even more confusion and frustration among the other German-speakers. Between the rivers Rhine and Main they’re called Kreppel or Kräppel. From Franconia in northern Bavaria all the way down the Danube to Vienna they’re Krapfen and are traditionally filled with either apricot or rosehip jam, though in recent years every imaginably decadent filling has been employed by local bakers in an attempt to stand out or go viral.
In Pennsylvania Dutch country, on whose periphery I grew up in both a physical and metaphorical sense, we have our Fastnachts. The term refers both to the holiday season as well as the doughnuts made on Fat Tuesday, and comes from the Middle High German words vaste, meaning fast or Lent, and naht meaning night or “evening before”. What I love about these Fastnachts is that, first of all, they’re not as cloyingly sweet as regular doughnuts. They can be left as is or made as sweet as the eater wants with sugar or powdered sugar or molasses or Lord knows what else (apple butter seems fitting?). And they’re made with a potato dough, so they’re fluffy and light as air. What more could you want in fried dough?!
My recipe I’ve made the last few years is shamelessly lifted and hardly adapted from the high priest of all things Pennsylvania Dutch on the internet, Doug Madenford. I’ll include his YouTube video on the subject (even in Pennsylvania Dutch, so brush up!). The hardcore, the OG, Doug himself numbered among them, fry theirs in lard. You probably get a superior product that way because, let’s be honest, what isn’t made better by pig fat. The poor like moi reach for the bottle of canola or sunflower oil that’s already in the pantry. Regardless, I hope you get your fill of fried goodness today! Happy Fastnacht!
Adapted from Doug Madenford. Makes approx. 25.
- 1.5 c milk, room-temperature
- 1/2 c mashed potatoes, cooled
- 1/2 c potato cooking water, cooled
- 1 pkt active dry yeast
- 1 c (200g) granulated sugar
- 1 c (225g) butter, melted and cooled
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2.5 lbs (1135g) flour
- Oil or lard for frying
Mix everything but the flour til eggs and butter are thoroughly combined. Mix in the flour to form a dough that should be very soft but not excessively sticky. Knead, cover, and let rise overnight in a cool place.
The next morning, heat oil or lard to 350-375ºF (175-190ºC). Roll out the dough to approx. 1/2″ thick and cut into about 25 pieces. Traditional are either rectangles or triangles. (I’ve had the best results with either cutting a small slit in the middle or pressing the middle very flat so that it cooks evenly.) Let rest until puffy, not quite doubled in size.
Fry several at a time, as your pot or pan allows, and let cool briefly on newspaper or paper towels. If you wish to roll them in sugar, do so while still warm.