Did you grow up eating fasnachts on Fasnacht Day? If so, odds are that you have a Pennsylvania connection. I often joke with friends that western Pennsylvania, where I grew up, is like a foreign country. And Fasnacht Day, which occurs on Tuesday, March 8th, this year, is one example of how life is often just slightly different there.
Fasnacht refers both to the day before Lent’s start, and to the little doughnuts made each year on its namesake day. The doughnut is just a variation on the many Fat Tuesday-oriented pastries made throughout the Christian world each spring.* But this variant seems to resonate mostly in Pennsylvania or among Pennsylvanians.
Regardless of whether my friends have heard of fasnachts, they happily eat them each year when I make them. Mine are, admittedly, not based on any long-treasured recipe passed down through generations. In truth, I don’t know what my grandmother’s recipe was. Despite having recently inherited her recipe collection, which contains three distinct recipes for fasnachts, I can’t confidently identify which, if any, was her recipe. Regardless, the fasnacht as I know it is a square of golden brown, yeasty, not-too-sweet dough flavored with a sprinkling of nutmeg and sugar. Because I can’t face a roiling pot of oil, I adapted a baked doughnut recipe for the holiday’s purpose.
(adapted from the recipe for Baked Doughnuts in The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, Thirteenth Edition, by Marion Cunningham)
One recipe makes about 4 dozen fasnachts.
For the fasnachts:
2 envelopes dry yeast
1/3 cup warm water
1 1/2 cups milk
1/3 cup shortening
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
2 eggs, beaten
4 1/2 cups (more or less) flour
For the topping:
1/2 cup melted butter
2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg mixed with 1 cup granulated sugar
Make the dough:
Place the yeast in the warm water and set aside for a few minutes to dissolve. Warm the milk and shortening in a saucepan on low heat until shortening is melted; set aside to cool to lukewarm. In a large mixing bowl, combine these two mixtures—the yeast/water and the milk/shortening. Into this bowl stir the sugar, salt, nutmeg, eggs, and half of the flour. Beat until blended and then add most if not all of the remaining flour and beat again until dough is smooth. Cover bowl with a cloth and set aside in a warm spot until it doubles in size, which should take about an hour.
Shape the fasnachts:
Turn the dough out onto a really well-floured surface and pat it gently down into a large square measuring roughly 14″x14″ and about 1/2″ thick. Use a knife to cut it into 2″x2″ squares; if the edge pieces aren’t exact squares that’s okay; they’ll taste just as good. Use the tip of a teaspoon to make a diagonal cut in the middle of each square; this little cut is the doughnut’s “hole” so it shouldn’t run through to the edge. Place the fasnachts on buttered cookie sheets, 1″ apart. Let them rest again in a warm spot for 20 minutes.
Bake and top the fasnachts:
Preheat the oven to 450F. Bake for 8-10 minutes until they are just starting to turn golden brown. The middle cut will disappear and become more of a dimple. Transfer the fasnachts to a rack to cool just a bit. While they are still warm, apply the topping: brush the top of each fasnacht with the melted butter and dredge it in a bowl of 1 cup sugar mixed with 2 teaspoons ground nutmeg. Eat immediately.
Making them in advance:
If you can’t enjoy them right from the oven, you can instead make them ahead and freeze them. To go this route, bake them and allow them to cool completely. Then freeze them in a sealed bag. Thaw them and warm them up in the oven, and then finish them up by brushing with melted butter and dredging them in sugar and nutmeg.
This year I made an unprecedented eight dozen, so that I will have some to freeze for future lazy Sunday mornings. Happy Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, or Fasnacht Day!
*My friend has embarked on the noble quest to try every Fat Tuesday-oriented pastry out there. Want to help him out? If you have a Fat Tuesday pastry that you’d like to recommend he add to his list, please share the details in a comment! He and I will be most grateful!