Today we celebrate a Pennsylvania tradition known as Fastnacht Day, which is always celebrated on the last Tuesday before Lent.
(Lent is a forty-day season of preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. The season begins on Ash Wednesday, when pastors mark the foreheads of Christians with ashes as a reminder that we are created from dust and to dust we shall return.)
The name "Fastnacht" is German for "Fast Night." Fastnacht Day is a day to forget about dieting and a slim waistline and feast on doughnuts! It's a custom that had its beginnings with the Pennsylvania Dutch People. Making Fastnachts helped to use up the fat and sugar they had on hand before the Lenten fast began.
Although doughnuts with holes are frequently sold as "Fastnachts" in supermarkets this time of year, those who know their doughnuts will tell you that a real Fastnacht should never have a hole in the center. All the syrup leaks out of a Fastnacht with a hole in it!
If you would like to try your hand at making Fastnachts, here is an authentic recipe:
2 cups milk
1 cup mashed potatoes (no salt, milk, or butter added)
1/2 cup sugar + 1/2 tsp. sugar
1 stick margarine
1 packet rapid rise yeast
1/4 cup lukewarm water
6-1/2 cups flour (divided, 2 cups + 4 1/2 cups)
1-1/2 tsp. salt
1 can (3 pounds) Crisco® or similar vegetable shortening for frying
Preparation - Scald the milk. In a large mixing bowl, combine the scalded milk with the mashed potatoes. Add 1/2 cup sugar plus the margarine. Mix with an electric mixer. If the mixture is still warm, cool to about room temperature before proceeding with next step. - Dissolve the yeast and 1/2 teaspoon sugar in barely warm water. Add to the potato mixture and mix well.
Add 2 cups flour and mix again. Cover with a towel and let rise for 25 minutes.
Add the salt and beaten egg to the mixture. Add 4-1/2 cups flour, stirring it into the mixture with a large spoon. Turn onto a well floured board and knead for about 3 to 5 minutes. Add a small amount of extra flour if necessary so the dough can be handled without sticking to your fingers. Grease a large bowl. Place the dough in the greased bowl. Cover with a thin towel, and let rise in a warm, draft free place for about 2 hours or until it is at least double in size.
On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough 3/4" thick. You can use a doughnut cutter to cut the dough or cut as typical Fastnachts - Cut the dough into 3" to 4" wide strips, then cut the strips into 3" to 4" pieces. To allow the center of Fastnacht to fry completely, cut a small slit in the center of each piece, using a sharp paring knife. Arrange the pieces of dough, about 1-1/2" to 2" apart, on large wax paper lined trays. Cover each tray with a thin towel. Place the trays in a warm place for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the dough pieces have raised to about double in size.
Heat the shortening to 365º. Deep fry until both sides are golden brown, turning one time. Drain on white paper towels. Cool completely before serving. Store in a covered, airtight container.
Makes about 20 to 24 Fastnachts, depending on size. This recipe can be doubled with no change in preparation directions.
To use this raised doughnut recipe, for glazed doughnuts: Beat together: 2-1/2 cups confectioners' sugar, 4 tablespoons margarine and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Add enough milk to make a thin glaze. Drizzle the glaze over the slightly warm doughnuts or dip the doughnuts in the glaze.
For powdered doughnuts: Shake slightly warm doughnuts in a bag with confectioners' sugar, or a combination of confectioners' sugar and cinnamon.