Fried dough: Is there anything more appealing? Across the globe, different food cultures have their own treasured version of a deep-fried, carb-y treat: Italian zeppoles, French beignets, Polish pączki, Iranian bamiyeh, Mexican churros, Indian jalebi, American funnel cake … the list goes on.
One type of fried dough that’s native to Germany, and has become a Pennsylvania food icon, is the fastnacht (also spelled “fasnacht”). It’s a fried doughnut traditionally enjoyed at Carnival and Fastnacht Day or Fat Tuesday, which is always the day before Ash Wednesday and Lent’s start. Because Lent is all about abstaining from sugar and fat, fastnachts were originally made to use up sugar and butter or lard and give everyone one last hurrah before the pre-Easter fasting commenced. For people who observe Lent, this is still part of this treat’s function; for everyone else, it’s just another kind of doughnut to get excited about!
The history of fastnachts can be traced back to the 17th and 18th centuries and the German immigrants who would become the Pennsylvania Dutch population in Central PA (and the surrounding regions). Centuries later, we have them to thank for Fastnacht Day and the proliferation of fastnachts across the Commonwealth! In the late winter, you’ll start to see grocery stores and markets in eastern Pennsylvania dishing up fastnachts, and they usually don’t stick around very long. Because fastnachts are such a seasonal treat, many bakeries and markets that offer them, sell out quickly after a day of long lines.
Fastnachts are made with a yeasted dough, and traditional PA Dutch recipes include mashed potatoes in the batter for a dense, rich texture. Some old-school bakeries deep fry them in lard, though a vegetable-based oil can be used to keep them vegetarian. Old school fastnachts are square-shaped or rectangular, and sometimes, more modern ones are round — but they never have a hole in the middle. Many bakeries sprinkle on powdered sugar, cinnamon or glaze as a topping, though the true PA Dutch style is to spread fastnachts with molasses.
As Fastnacht Day approaches, you’ll find not just bakeries, coffee shops, restaurants and delis, but also senior centers, fire halls, churches and other community gathering spaces throughout the state offering their own fastnachts for sale. A few places you can find them this year include Haegele’s Bakery and Bredenbeck’s Bakery in Philadelphia; Frecon Farms in Boyertown; Shady Maple in East Earl; Flinchbaugh’s Orchard in Hellam; Achenbach’s Pastries in Leola; Marley’s Country Goods in the Lancaster Central Market in downtown Lancaster; Cornerstone Coffeehouse in Camp Hill; and Oak Grove Farms in Mechanicsburg.
Where do you find fastnachts in your community? Have you ever made them? What makes the perfect fastnacht, in your opinion? Let us know in the comments here or on the PA Eats Facebook page!
- Photo and video: Dish Works