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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Cooking Adventures: Fastnachts Are Not Just a Doughnut

WHO’S THE FASTNACHT IN YOUR HOUSE?

In Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Fat Tuesday is Shrove Tuesday, better known as Fastnacht Day. Fastnacts are the heavier Northern cousine to the beignet, made with mashed potatoes and are the best when fried in lard, so the idea of feasting on fried baked goods to use up the “fat” in the house, is the same as it is for Mardi Gras. And even though Fastnacht Day has received less publicity than New Orlean’s parades and uh, so called festivities, the Pa. Dutch are racing each other to get out of, instead of into, bed.

But people of the world; fastnachts are “weigh” better than beignets. Fastnachts are fantastic, stupendous, and amazing. Fastnachts are under appreciated and can turn you into a fanatic.

Fastnachts are not just a doughnut. Come on! Fastnachts begin with supper. And potatoes. Can you say the same about beignets? I didn't think so.



Nana at Christmas, with my brother, Jeremy, 1973.

Nana at Christmas, 1982.


You see the dough needs potato and potato water to help them rise. Potato water has its own growing spirit in it for the yeast to take hold and grow.

During the day I watched Nana in the kitchen and smelled the potatoes cooking. We would have parsley potatoes, no doubt, with ham for supper. As I say, Nana was totally enrapt with the kitchen and I was always in there, anticipating, helping, waiting for Nana to show me the next step for fastnachts, or anything. But inevitably I would miss the magical big moment, and not see her work the dough. Probably because I was eating potatoes and ham. Then I would get sent off to bed. Sent to bed yes, but I would not be sleeping. Not the night before fried fastnacht morning. No, no. 

I know I was probably underfoot much of the time in the kitchen. Nana was patient but had a lot on her mind. As I look back, Nana was always cooking and so she must have made a plan. A plan to keep me busy too. By shopping! By the time I was 11 or 12  I was going to the Ciotti market and bringing Nana (mostly) everything she needed for cooking. She gave me money to buy from the huckster that passed by on Fourth Street. I was doing all the shopping for our little family. And I loved it. 

But back to fastnachts. On the night before fastnachts Nana crept in my bedroom and put the huge crockery bowl of dough to rise on the table by my supposed sleeping self, the fragrance of the sweet yeast and potato-ey buttery dough was unbearable. How could i be expected to sleep through that? I would wait till she left and then get up quietly, barely breathing, to lift the linen tea towel and sneak my fingers under the dough to pinch off little balls, (no, they were not little. that’s my devilish side telling a straight out lie) from under the big ball of dough and thinking I was so clever to do that. I would rise as the dough did repeatedly throughout the night. I can tell you the dreams in me then were huge; floating out as dreams are wont to do, snagging all kind of vistas and lands and I think, these nights of rising dough, the smells and the dreams, the sound of the heater - the shadows of Nana's coming and going - lit a poor little match girl/bread girl image in me that never left. 

Another part of the story behind the dough and the heater was that as a young young girl, they tell me I was quite frail. I know. Hard to fathom. And they gave me the front bedroom because it had the largest register. Isn’t it funny? Register is the word for heater. They thought this gave me the best chance to thrive.  And I did, on fastnacht dough.

Nana crept back in a little before dawn. She would ever so quietly snap the window shade and raise it up. Five am, I’m guessing. That’s when the bowl would disappear and in the kitchen I could smell the oil heating in her big deep fat fryer. She would be singing and rolling the dough. Cut it into squares. I would roll over and stare out the window. Then when I heard the door open to our neighbor Joe Hodgekins, coming over for coffee, I went to the kitchen.   

The poor soul to arise last on Fastnacht Day is called the fastnact and must remain as the chore-doer all day for everyone in the house.  My brother was the perpetual fastnact as I always woke early to enjoy the the first delicious fastnachts, dripping with turkey syrup. But Jeremy never had to do a single chore. As the only boy he was revered. 

So folks, make no fun of a fastancht,  just eat them.

Both of these recipes come from Nana’s files. The fastnact recipe can easily be cut in half. Neither listed a frying temperature or timing. It was normal to make dozens of everything and refer to the amounts of ingredients in such quantifiable measures as “the size of an egg or a walnut” and then admonished with, “Ach! Don’t be a dum-kopf, chust like Aunt Effie made.” I feel fortunate to have learned the basics from Nana. But since you might not have, fry them at 375 degrees and 3 minutes per side for each the fastnacts and the fritters. Enjoy.

Pennsylvania Dutch Fastnachts

The process isn’t difficult , just a bit time-consuming, but broken down into steps it’s as easy as pie, I mean, as doughnuts.

Makes a 5-6 dozen, large doughnuts

2 cups mashed potatoes
4 cups potato water
4 cups granulated sugar
5 scant T yeast
½ cup warm potato water
14 –16 cups flour
1 ½ cups butter (they used to use shortening, margerine or lard)
6 eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons salt


Mix the potatoes, sugar, and potato water. Add butter and cool. Gradually add the beaten eggs. Add yeast dissolved in warm potato water. Gradually add flour and mix well with a wooden spoon. When that becomes impossible turn the dough out on a large floured surface, and knead in enough remaining flour to make a non-sticky
pliable dough. Think of the texture as being similar to an earlobe. Place dough in a very large greased bowl or allow to sit on counter, covered with a linen tee-towel. Punch dough down after it has doubled in size. 2-3 hours. Let rise again for 2 hours, punch down and roll out ½ inch thick. Cut into rectangles, about 3 by 3 inches.  Place on floured baking sheets and let rise on the back of the stove or in another warm place for 20-30  minutes. Fry in oil at 375 degrees, okay you can use canola or vegetable oil instead of lard. Fry till a medium brown or about 3 minutes per side. It works well to use a bamboo skimmer to turn them, but if that is unavailable wooden chopsticks or a wooden spoon will do as well.

Apple Fritters

Nana used to refer to these as snowballs. Was it because they were dredged in powdered sugar? Or because it was usually snowing outside on Fastnacht Day when my brother Jeremy and I threw the round fritters at each other while eating?

2 cups flour
1 T. baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tsp. salt
¼ cup sugar
2 eggs
1 cup plus 1 T. milk
3 cups chopped apples

Place all the ingredients, except the eggs and milk, in a large bowl. Blend the egg and the milk, then stir into dry ingredients. Use a #10 ice-cream scoop to slip into hot fat, 375 degrees, or barring that, use a tablespoon.


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