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Most of us are acquainted with Fat Tuesday, Carnival, and even Shrove Tuesday, those gluttonous precursors to Lent. But how about Fasnacht? This Pennsylvania Dutch tradition functions in the same way, except its focus is doughnuts. (In the same vein, some people acknowledge the day before Ash Wednesday by eating pancakes.) Jeff Cleary of Golden’s Grateful Bread Company grew up in Minersville, Pennsylvania, and he fondly remembers the Fasnacht custom. As a kid, however, he was more focused on the yum factor than the religious significance. “I remember we ate them before Lenten,” Cleary says. ”I really didn’t make the association with Fat Tuesday and Carnival, and that they were celebrating the same thing.”
Fasnachts (the term applies to both the holiday and the confection) are usually square potato doughnuts made with leftover mashed potatoes or riced boiled potatoes. A little research indicates that the treats were fashioned as a way to use up decadent ingredients such as butter, lard, and sugar before Lent.
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With Fasnacht here (this year, it’s today, February 28), Cleary is reaching back to his roots to make the potato doughnuts of his youth. The recipe, which was passed to his mother in 1969, is his grandmother’s. And it’s the same formula Cleary drew on when he owned a bakery in the Minersville Train Station, where he made Fasnachts but once a year. “We made doughnuts and sticky buns and pan breads every day, but I remember boiling the potatoes and building up to Fasnacht Day,” Cleary says.
Because Grateful Bread doesn’t have a deep fryer, the treats will not be available for sale. But should you wish to mark your day with a doughnut, Cleary offers his recipe here. He has simplified it by swapping out the potatoes for readily available potato flour.
(makes about ten 3-inch doughnuts)
1 pound plus 1.5 ounces bread flour
3.25 ounces potato flour
.5 ounces kosher salt
2 ounces granulated sugar
.33 ounces instant yeast
5.5 ounces milk
5.5 ounces lukewarm water
.75 ounces unsalted butter
2 large eggs
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Canola oil, for frying
Confectioners’ sugar, granulated sugar, and/or cinnamon sugar
Weigh out the ingredients and combine them all (except for the canola oil) in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Crumble and work the butter in with your hands as if you were making pie dough. Turn on the mixer to low speed and mix for just shy of 5 minutes; the dough will be pretty stiff in the beginning but don’t let that fool you into adding more milk or water. Once it proofs it will become soft.
Remove the dough from the mixing bowl and form it into ball. Place the dough in a clean bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let it rise for a hour, or until the dough has nearly doubled in size and is soft.
Roll out the dough to 3/4 of an inch thick and cut into squares. Arrange on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper; cover with plastic wrap. Proof for another half hour or so, until the squares have nearly doubled in size.
Heat oil to 375°F and deep fry doughnuts until golden brown. Remove from the hot oil with a slotted spoon and immediately roll in the sugar of your choice.