Feasting on doughnuts in Pennsylvania

When Fat Tuesday rolls around, many celebrate with sweet treats

February 14, 2007|By Marion Winik | Marion Winik,Special to The Sun

During the years I lived down South, I made an annual pilgrimage to New Orleans during carnival season - the weeks of parades and parties that end on Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. This is the last day before Lent begins - so down in Nawlins and in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Venice, Italy, people dress up in costumes, get drunk, dance in the streets and basically do whatever it takes to get the whoopee out of their systems before the Lenten season begins.

Though Baltimoreans may be far from the crowds on Bourbon Street, there's a nearby tradition of excess to enjoy. When Fat Tuesday arrives next week, we in central Pennsylvania - where I now live - will be eating lots and lots of doughnuts.

In a word - a typically stern-sounding German word - it's fastnacht. Say foss-nock, and don't worry about spelling it correctly because fasnacht, fashnacht and a variety of other versions all seem to be acceptable.

I first ran into fastnacht about 10 years ago at Saubel's, my local grocery store in Shrewsbury, Pa. As I was waiting in line to check out, daydreaming about the fun I'd be having if I still lived in driving distance of New Orleans, I noticed a table piled high with shimmering golden pastries. These, I was told, were special potato doughnuts called fastnachts, used to celebrate the local equivalent of Mardi Gras. Really, I said, trying to conceal my horror. You celebrate Mardi Gras with doughnuts? Yes, indeedy.

Fastnacht is German for the "eve of the fast" and here, too, people spend the Tuesday before Lent getting the whoopee out of their systems. It's just that for the Pennsylvania Dutch and their neighbors, this means eating doughnuts all day.

After experimenting with this tradition, I can tell you it does have its benefits. Just as I didn't even want to see an alcoholic beverage for weeks after Mardi Gras, I can't even think about eating much besides salad long after Fastnacht Day.

That's the idea, says Sheri Picone, a native of rural Felton, Pa. "On Fastnacht Day, our family eats doughnuts for breakfast, lunch and dinner, a couple of dozen at each meal," she says. "We have them with homemade maple syrup, with a vanilla glaze, with chocolate icing, and with sugar and cinnamon. We don't eat anything else. On Wednesday, we're ready to start better eating. The Christmas candy is finally gone; the fruit and vegetables of spring are on the way."

Picone learned to make fastnachts from her husband's mother, as did another faithful fryer, Marie Gressley, in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley area. Gressley compares the fastnacht tradition to baking Christmas cookies, a daylong affair.

"When my children were young," she says, "they would help me cut out the circles, squares and rectangles from the dough to raise again for frying. They helped to mark each doughnut with a cross, which is both symbolic and practical, since the dough balls need to be pierced to allow even frying."

Everyone I spoke to, even the rare York, Pa.-area health nut like Sheila Ream, who has given up making fastnachts because "they're so bad for you," said you haven't really experienced this delicacy until you've eaten them warm from the fryer, shaken in a bag with sugar and cinnamon, or split and spread with molasses or maple syrup. Well, I certainly didn't want my family to miss out on the real thing, so I decided to make them myself.

The first problem was finding a recipe that used less than 5 pounds of flour. When people make fastnachts, they really make fastnachts. Finally, I found the accompanying recipe online, and I can vouch for the results. I made the mashed potatoes the night before and started the rest of the process at 7 the next morning. We were brunching by 11. And there wasn't a drop of Crisco left in the house. Whew.

If you'd rather not deep-fry, you can pick up a dozen at any grocery store or Maple Doughnut shop in York County. Many churches take orders; Saubel's, the grocery where I discovered fastnachts, expects to sell about 144,000 this year, according to assistant bakery manager Tonie Stiffler.

She's been watching the fastnacht business grow almost since Saubel's opened in 1965, and she credits the increase in consumption to "people moving up from Baltimore. They never even knew what they were before, but once they find out, they want to take them into work like everybody else."

You hear that? Come on up and party like a central Pennsylvanian.

Fastnachts

Makes 20 to 24

2 cups scalded milk

1 cup mashed potatoes (no salt, milk or butter added)

1/2 cup plus 1/2 teaspoon sugar (divided use)

1 stick margarine

1 packet rapid-rise yeast

1/4 cup lukewarm water

6 1/2 cups flour (divided use), plus more for handling, if needed

1 egg, beaten

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 can (3 pounds) Crisco or similar vegetable shortening for frying

2/3 cup confectioners' sugar

2 tablespoons cinnamon

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