Fastnachts

By Sarah Heffner.

Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent – the season of sacrifice and reflection that culminates with Easter Sunday. Shrove Tuesday, or “fat Tuesday”, has its roots in ancient European Christian history and is a day when cooks use up their cooking fat and rich foods before the plain, lean meals of Lent. Shrove Tuesday traditions range from Mardi Gras in New Orleans to Pancake Day in England, all based on the idea of one last celebration before a time of repentance.

For the Pennsylvania Dutch, Shrove Tuesday is Fastnacht Day.

Alfred Shoemaker, in his book Eastertide in Pennsylvania: A Folk-Cultural Study (Pennsylvania Folklife Society, 1960), detailed Fastnacht Day customs, including that the last person out of bed and down to the kitchen is a “Fastnacht” for the day. I think this is one day that I would want to rise early to be able to eat the first freshly cooked fastnachts.

The Fastnacht – Shrove Tuesday morning

Along with the customs, Shoemaker writes about making fastnachts and the distinction between non-yeast fastnacht recipes vs. raised dough recipes and what determines the authentic fastnacht – from the ingredients to the shape of the fastnacht – whether square with a slit in the middle or round with a hole in the center. (Either is done so that the fastnacht dough fries evenly.)

Non-yeast fastnachts

I queried Goschenhoppen historian Alan Keyser about non-yeast fastnachts because my family tradition is a potato yeast dough recipe. He responded that he has determined that primarily Lutherans in Lehigh and Berks County were the ones who thought “raised” Fastnacht cakes were improper. Reformed Church members seem not to have worried about the yeast.

Mr. Keyser writes that:
In some areas of the Dutch Country certain families found it critical that Fasnachts on Shrove Tuesday be made “without rising.” This is related to the symbolism in the scripture which equates leavening to sin—some sort of evil or contamination that grows. I Corinthians 5:6 says, “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (KJV). To cure this the Corinthians were advised to discard the whole lump and start over without leaven. It then says that the Passover is observed with unleavened bread. A literal English translation of Luther’s German would be, ‘Therefore let us not keep Easter with the old sourdough, also not with the sourdough of evil and knavery but with the unleaven of sincerity and truth.’ [Darum lasset uns Ostern halten, nicht im alten Sauerteig, auch nicht im Sauerteig der Bosheit und Schalkheit, sondern in dem Süßteig der Lauterkeit und der Wahrheit. 1 Korinther 5:8.]”

The literal reading of this scripture was likely the reason some insisted Fasnachts be made without yeast.

In the mid-twentieth century, Raymond Hollenbach said that his Lutheran background in Lehigh County required Fasnachts to be baked without yeast. (Edna Eby Heller, “Dutch Treats for Breakfast,” Pennsylvania Folklife vol. 10, no. 1, Spring 1959, p. 31.) As their communion bread, Lutherans and Roman Catholics used unleavened wafers, and the Dunkers baked a large round unleavened loaf marked in strips one-and-a-quarter inches wide covered with rows of five fork pricks across the strip to represent the five wounds of Christ on the cross. But the other Pennsylvania Dutch denominations used regular leavened wheat bread for communion.

Making them without yeast was important enough that Mary Elizabeth Muhlenberg, another Lutheran, included it in her recipe title. This recipe without yeast produces a slightly lighter cake because of the butter, but do not expect a light, yeast type doughnut:

Fasnachts without raising
½ lb of Butter
3 eggs
1 qt & pint cold milk
salt
[7¼ pounds] flour to make it stiff
Roll it out & baked in lard. To make these roll them out thin—less than an eighth inch. Cut into two-inch squares or diamonds with a slit in the middle of each using a jagging iron. Fry in lard at 350 degrees F. Brown lightly on one side, turn and brown the other side. Remove from the lard and drain.

[end of Mr. Keyser’s notes]

Potato fastnachts

Potatoes were added to fastnacht recipes around 1900 (A. Keyser, personal communication, 1/23/2021) and it seems that by the twentieth century at least, Mennonites and Schwenkfelders were not concerned about yeast in their fastnachts.

Schwenkfelder Sadie Kriebel (1906-1998), who lived in Hereford, Berks County, was interviewed for the Wednesday, February 16, 1983 Town and Country newspaper about her raised-dough fastnachts. Sadie, who made up to 30 dozen fastnachts for Fastnacht day, would start her yeast dough the night before so that her fastnachts would be ready to bake by about noon the next day. Her recipe, featured below, is in the Schwenkfelder Cookbook that can be purchased from the Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center museum store.

Sadie Kriebel’s Recipe for Raised Doughnuts
1 cup mashed potatoes
1 cup potato water
1 tbsp. flour
1 tbsp. granulated sugar

When lukewarm add 1 pkg. yeast, stir well. Keep warm until very active, then add 1 qt. lukewarm water and 6 cups unsifted flour, beat well, cover and let raise 1 hour. Then add 3 cups granulated sugar, 5 eggs, well beaten, 1 cup shortening and 2 tsp. salt, beat well, gradually add about 16 more cups of flour to make a dough that can be kneaded from 5 to 10 minutes. Place in a large greased bowl, turn batter to grease it on top to keep from drying out, cover and let raise until a little more than doubled in bulk. Roll and shape, raise again until light on cloth covered surface and fry in hot fat or oil. Yields approx. 7 doz. If your dough is stiff enough and needs more kneading, grease your hands instead of using more flour.

If you think the 7 dozen fastnacht recipe is larger than you wish to tackle, my Mom’s recipe for potato fastnachts has smaller quantities of ingredients. I have to confess that I have never made raised-dough fastnachts but I am planning on taking Shrove Tuesday off and making them this year.

Laura Wolfgang’s Fastnacht recipe
1 c. mashed potatoes
3 T. soft shortening
2 T. sugar
1 ½ t. salt
½ c. scalded milk, cooled
1 pk. dry yeast
½ c. potato water
1 egg, beaten
3-3 ¼ c. all purpose flour

Combine shortening, sugar and salt with milk. Cool to lukewarm. Add the yeast that has been dissolved in ½ c. potato water. Stir in egg, potatoes and flour. Mix well and chill dough. Keeps 2 days in refrigerator. May be used unchilled but let set 15 minutes and more flour is needed. Roll about ¼ inch thick, cut, let rise until double in size and fry.

The cooks in the Grandma’s Kitchen demonstration at the Mennonite Heritage Center’s Apple Butter Frolic event have made fastnachts on a wood cook stove the last several years. We were interested in a non-yeast recipe because of the vagaries of cooking in a tent in October. Joel Alderfer, MHC Collections Manager, brought his Mom’s fastnacht recipe that is made with potatoes and uses baking powder for leavening. Baking powder came into use around 1870 (A. Keyser, personal communication, 1/23/2021). The recipe has proved a hit with Frolic attendees who can put a couple of small fastnachts in a paper bag with confectioner’s sugar and shake the fastnachts until they are coated with the sugar and then enjoy eating them.

Potato doughnuts fresh out of the lard at the Apple Butter Frolic.

Mrs. Alderfer’s Potato Doughnuts
(source: 1952 Betty Crocker Cookbook)
3 eggs, beat well
Beat in:
¾ cup sugar
3 Tablespoons soft shortening
Stir in (sift the following ingredients together first):
2 ¾ cups flour
4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. mace
Stir in:
1 cup mashed potatoes (unseasoned)
Chill dough 2 hours. Turn onto generously floured board. Roll out 1/ 3 inch thick. Let rest 20 minutes. Cut with doughnut cutter. Fry in hot fat until brown.

Potato doughnuts frying in lard on the wood cookstove.

Lard and Molasses

Doughnuts can be fried in oil, but lard is the traditional fat made during winter butchering. Lard truly does produce a crispy fastnacht. Be careful working with the hot fat – you will need several inches of lard to fry the fastnachts, flipping them to fry on either side. Use a slotted spoon to take the fastnachts out of the fat and place on a tray.

Eat them plain with molasses or put several in a paper bag with powdered sugar and shake the bag until the fastnachts are coated with sugar.

Mountville Church of the Brethren, 1959 (Mrs. Mary Miller, left, and Mrs. William Bowers, right). Source: Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center.

Sarah (Wolfgang) Heffner is on staff at the Mennonite Heritage Center, Harleysville.

6 thoughts on “Fastnachts

  1. Oh Yum, I can’t think of anything I loved more than raised potato Fastnachts made in huge quantities by Winnie Kistler! I can still smell them!

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  2. Oh, yommy! I’ve made potato latkes (fried potato pancake), and unleavened bread (what some call hardtack) for passover meal, and communion bread both leavened and unleavened.I’ve also made frybread, but I’ve never tried doughnuts (fastnachts?) before. I’ll have to see if I have any oil in the house.

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  3. Amazing how it seems there are as many different recipes as there are families. My grandmother(1907-1998) and her mother and grandmother, made theirs using potatoes and butter in the dough, but no milk; using lard to fry. By the time I started helping, she used Crisco to fry. I once made them with milk and they were very good, but there was little discernible difference from the non milk version. I am the keeper of the tradition in my family, but rarely make as many as I used to. Due to everyone working, I started a tradition called Soup and Fastnacht Sunday, where family members drive to my house 30 miles away and eat soup for lunch, then load up on freshly made Fastnachts before taking a bag home to eat on Fastnacht day.

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  4. I learned to make fastnachts from my mother, Margaret Fisher Homyack. Don’t ever call them doughnuts. My grandkids composed a fastnacht day song to the tune of Tannenbaum. Best with Turkey Syrup. Powdered sugar is for the English.

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    1. Would your Grandkids want to record their song? Sounds like fun. In my family we love to argue about powdered sugar, molasses, turkey syrup, lard, crisco, etc.

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  5. I tried Laura Wolfgang’s recipe yesterday. It was really easy and really good. I made them the night before and kept in fridge overnight so was ready to first thing in the morning. I am sharing this recipe with others.

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