Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, is known in Pennsylvania Dutch Country as FASTNACHT DAY. What I remember from my youth was my Grandma Losch deep-frying dozens of fastnachts, or doughnuts, that were truly without equal. People just knew to stop by her place on the day before Ash Wednesday to enjoy a homemade bit of sugary doughy goodness.
History holds that making fastnachts, or doughnuts, was a way to use up the last of the lard or sweets in the house before embarking upon Lent, the Christian season of purification and self-denial. See also, beignets, or any number of church-sponsored pancake suppers on the last night before Ash Wednesday.
While I can’t locate my grandma’s exact recipe for these fried delicacies, I do have one from the Pennsylvania Dutch Cookbook (published by Culinary Arts Books in Gettysburg, PA) that is close.
1 package active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (110 – 115 degrees farenheit)
1 teaspoon sugar
3 cups sifted flour
2 cups (whole) milk, scalded and cooled to lukewarm
3 eggs, well-beaten
1/4 cup butter, melted
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 1/2 to 4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
Large amount of vegetable oil for frying
In a small bowl, soften yeast in the warm water and let stand 5-10 minutes.
In a larger bowl, pour the milk, and add the 1 teaspoon sugar and 3 cups sifted flour and stir until smooth. Into this, stir in the water/yeast mixture. Cover and place in a warm place and let rise until doubled. [The recipe doesn’t say how long, so keep an eye on it. Possibly an hour or so.]
To this mixture, use a wooden spoon to stir and add the eggs, butter and remaining sugar, salt, nutmeg, and enough flour until the mixture can no longer be stirred with a spoon (it will be a soft dough).
Cover and let rise until doubled. [Again, doesn’t say, probably 45-60 minutes or so. Better have some reading material handy. Or some laundry.]
Punch down this dough and divide into two portions.
On a floured surface, roll out each portion until it’s about half-an-inch thick. Cut with a doughnut cutter. Cover the cut-out dough and let rise in a warm place until [you guessed it] doubled.
(If you don’t have a doughnut cutter, you could cut these into squares instead, or circles, like a biscuit. Trust me, it’ll taste really good no matter the shape of the dough.)
Once risen, fry the cut-out doughnuts in deep fat that has been heated to 370 degrees Fahrenheit, frying each piece 3-4 minutes or until lightly browned, turning over to brown evenly. Remove from fat and drain. When cool, sprinkle with with powdered or granular sugar. Then sprinkle some more, just to be safe.