Fastnacht Day

In Pennsylvania Dutch country, there’s only one way to celebrate Fat Tuesday

By Nevin Martell

Published on February 15, 2015

It took me years to work up the courage to tackle one of my grandmother's most memorable and well-loved creations: fastnachts. Every year, the night before Shrove Tuesday—also known as Fat Tuesday—she would stay up late prepping big batches of the potato-based doughnuts. The next morning, she would rise before dawn to fry the puffy orbs to a deep mahogany, then shower them in confectioners' sugar while they were still hot.

I made a point of getting up early those days, too, so I could gorge myself on the yeasty treats. By the time my parents joined us, splashes of sugar spotted my pajamas and my fingers were sticky.

Back then, all I knew about the fritters was the number that I could eat in a single sitting (Answer: as many as Gramma would let me). As I've carried on the ritual, though, I've taken the time to trace their culinary roots. Long a tradition in Pennsylvania Dutch country, fastnachts are originally a German pastry. The name literally means "night before the fast;" Christians would heavily indulge in the sugary, lard-rich frizzled sweets before Lent began.

Like most traditions, the recipe varies slightly from household to household, and people are fiercely loyal to the version they were raised on. Some cooks don’t use potatoes as a base. Others use baking powder instead of yeast. Still others will ice or otherwise decorate the breakfast pastries. In some places, you’ll find them stuffed with jam or jelly. Every Shrove Tuesday—or as many Pennsylvanians call it, Fastnacht Day—brings with it debates about which iteration is most authentic.

Despite the fact that I was risking the condemnation of my family, I wanted to add my own touches to my grandmother’s recipe. Her version calls for lard, but I've compromised by using shortening instead, and frying them in either canola or vegetable oil. To add nuance, I incorporate mace and orange zest into the dough, a flavor combination I always enjoy in the winter. And after pulling the fritters from the oil, I toss them in a cinnamon-sugar mixture, which adds a little crunch and another layer of flavor.

When I made my first batch, I couldn't resist wolfing down three of the sweet treats immediately. And for just a moment, I was back in my grandmother’s kitchen, a kid buzzed on sugar and joy.

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