Fastnachts are a doughnut consumed in Pennsylvania on Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday). This year it falls on Feb. 13.
People order them by the dozens. It’s one of those foods you can’t ignore. After all, they are available for only a few days every year.
Fastnacht is a German word meaning “night before the fast.” These baked goods were originally created to use up the lard, sugar, butter, eggs and other rich foods in a house before the austere diet of Lent begins. In Catholic and Protestant countries, Fastnacht Day is also called “Fat Tuesday,” or “Mardi Gras,” a name which predates the Reformation and referred to the Christian tradition of eating rich foods before the Lenten fast began.
Pennsylvania Dutch farm families were quite large, and historically frugal. Many of our the most beloved Pennsylvania Dutch foods are created to use up every last bit of food in the home. (Scrapple, is one example of this food practice, by using the leftover parts of a pig and stretching the ground parts with cornmeal). This is the same for this humble but beloved doughnut.
The last person up on Shrove Tuesday was called the “Fastnacht” and kidded all day long for being late for this wonderful breakfast. In the same way, the last person up on Ash Wednesday was also teased, and called the “Ashepuddle”, whose chore for the day was to carry the ashes in the stoves and ovens outside to the ash pile. Fastnachts were a winter staple of the Dutch housewife and could be eaten long past Ash Wednesday. Shrove Tuesday fastnacht baking was a way of life in which the Pennsylvania Dutch people celebrated their ethnicity, more than going to church; it was a folk-life practice.
Not every fastnacht is the same and recipes vary. Some fastnachts are square or diamond-shaped, while others are round. Some have holes. Authentic fasnachts are made with yeast or baking soda. Some recipes call for mashed potatoes or potato flour. Traditional fasnachts are supposed to be deep-fried in lard. The recipes vary among regions. For example, fastnachts made in the Lehigh Valley traditionally are not made with yeast while recipes from Lancaster and York typically call for yeast.
I have made fastnachts when we lived far away from Pennsylvania, but this year I bought them from a church as a fundraiser. (I’m not good at frying foods because I hate the clean up. I also like the idea of supporting Pennsylvania folkways and church practices). If you are local to the Lehigh Valley, you can buy them at these various sites this year.
If you would like to make your own (and I encourage everyone to do this at least once), here are some recipes to explore:
BTW, this recipe is from the Cooking Channel’s, “My Grandmother’s Ravioli” show in an episode called, “Please Pass the Pig Stomach.” It is probably my favorite MGR show episode ever! This is the recipe I use when I make Fastnachts. (The Boyers, on the show, live in my county and are adorable).
If you are interested in Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, my favorite book on this subject (and the most scholarly work I have found) is William Woys Weaver‘s, “As American As Shoofly Pie.” It’s a really interesting book, find it in your local library or on Amazon.