Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mardi Gras and Fastnachts in February

Today is 'Mardi Gras', the day before Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the 40 days of Lent. In the past few years, I have been exposed to a number of new traditions related to this Festival. The first of these is the tradition of the 'Fastnacht.' 'Fastnacht' translated into English strictly speaking is 'Fast Night', but 'Night' in this context means 'Eve'. The word itself translates as the 'Eve before the Fast' but is the name given to the traditional doughnuts made by Pennsylvania Germans for Shrove Tuesday.

The actual name of the Feast Day in German is Fasnachttag, or 'Eve of the Day of Fasting'. It is said that the origin of the tradition of making doughnuts on Shrove Tuesday was to use all the lard before Lent with its rather stringent dietary restrictions.

Fastnachts are NOT ordinary doughnuts and no one should mistake 'fast' for 'fast food'. They are made by hand and contain potatoes as well as flour. It is the addition of the potatoes that makes them unique.

Here is a very traditional recipe for Fastnachts, using yeast:

2 cups scalded milk
1/2 cup lard
1 cup mashed potatoes
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten well
1 packet of yeast
7 cups flour

Scald milk, adding mashed potatoes, sugar, salt and lard. (If you do not like lard, you can substitute melted butter but lard would be the MOST traditional ingredient.) Cool mixture until it is lukewarm. Add beaten eggs, then add yeast and sufficient flour to make a soft dough. Knead well and place in a greased bowl. Cover with a clean cloth and allow dough to rise for about 1 1/2 hours. Roll dough to 1/4 thickness, then place it on a cloth. Allow the dough to rise again until it has doubled in size. Use a cutter or knife to shape into round doughnuts or triangles. Fry in hot fat.

For those who do not have the patience to wait for bread to rise as well as those who are not very keen on lard as an ingredient, here is a fairly traditional contemporary Fastnacht Recipe:

2 1/2 cups hot mashed potatoes
1 cup Milk
3 beaten eggs
2 tablespoons melted butter
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
5 cups flour.

Combine all ingredients except for the flour thoroughly, then add the flour slowly. When thoroughly mixed, divide the dough into two parts. Roll to 1/2 inch thickness and cut with a doughnut cutter, a biscuit cutter or a glass. You can use a knife to cut the dough into triangles as well. Deep fry in oil or hot fat.

Serve with sugar or molasses.

Note from Freyashawk: When I have had Fastnachts, I have made my own mixture of confectioner's sugar, cinnamon, clove and cardamon to dust the surface of the Fastnacht. I usually heat the Fastnacht slightly before dusting the surface with the spiced sugar. The first time I had a Fastnacht, I was not impressed, as I thought of it as a rather heavy doughnut somewhat lacking in sweetness. It was when I had my second Fastnacht that I began to appreciate the unique flavour and texture.
They now have become a part of my own tradition for the season.

I have been told that there is another Pennsylvania Dutch tradition with respect to Fastnachts. The person who awakens last on Shrove Tuesday is called the 'Fastnacht' and there is some derision attached to this appellation.

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