I don’t guess I can let Fastnacht Day pass without saying something about the doughnuts. On what the English call Shrove Tuesday and the French call Mardi Gras, the day before Lent begins — “Fastnacht” means “eve of the fast” — Pennsylvania Germans have traditionally made potato doughnuts instead of pancakes or beignets. Of course I made some, as I do every year.
They’re not photogenic little things, I’m afraid. (I did my best.) Nor are they especially sweet — at least not traditionally, but then neither are any doughnuts, traditionally. If you buy them from a grocery store, I suppose they taste more or less like Krispy Kremes, but I lost access to grocery-store fastnachts when I moved to North Carolina in 1992. The first year here my mother shipped me a box, and after that I learned to make my own. They’re fried dough, you know? But the potato makes them light and gives them a richness you can’t duplicate with butter alone, and there’s a touch of mace, which I think is just wonderful.
I can’t offer a recipe, because I’ve used the same one from The Bread Book by Judith and Evan Jones for seventeen years and never felt the need to experiment. (It’s a great book, by the way, if you’re looking for good instruction and a basic array of traditional breads.) But I can offer a good culinary history quote, from a 1951 magazine article about Pennsylvania Dutch cooking:
As I sat in Mrs. Miller’s big, low-ceilinged kitchen beside her spotless wood-burning cookstove… we discussed her doughnut recipe. She got it from her mother. “First,” she began, “you take nine cakes of yeast and 27 cups of flour–” I nearly fell off the chair. “Wait a minute,” I interrupted. “How many doughnuts are we going to make?” She seemed puzzled. “Why,” she said, “I don’t know. I never get a chance to count them. You see, my family likes to eat them as they come from the pan. Don Eddy, “Dutch Treat,” American Magazine 151:1 (Jan. 1951), p. 111.
The recipe I use makes about a dozen and a half, and every time I make it I feel just a little inadequate. But, you know, they taste good.