This will hopefully be the first of an ongoing feature on people we meet who are using their love of good food to improve the world around them and take care of their friends.
A few weeks ago, our friend Sondra (Sonnie) had a bunch of us over for fastnachts. If you have no idea what those are, welcome to the club. I still have difficulty pronouncing it correctly, but what my eyes told me (and my mouth confirmed) is that fastnacht is just a silly Pennsylvania Dutch word for “doughnut”.
Apparently amidst all the varied and sometimes ridiculous traditions surrounding Lent, the PA Dutch at some point decided to address the season the same way they handle everything else: with delicious baked goods. According to Sonnie, the tradition of eating fastnachts arose out of a need to use up all the fat and sugar in the pantry before you went without them for the 40 days of Lent. For the past few years, she’s been trying to reinvent the tradition by inviting over a bunch of friends and frying up a whole bunch of these doughy treats.
The recipe, of course, came from an old, authoritative, weather-beaten Mennonite cookbook owned by Sonnie’s mother Julie (another dear friend of ours). Books like these are like ancient spellbooks of baking wonder; most of the recipes have stood the test of time and thousands of potlucks, and are well worth making. This recipe for fastnachts was no exception. It takes some preparation, but with a little thinking ahead it shouldn’t be too much of a burden on your schedule.
Anyway, enjoy the recipe below and try it out with your friends. We wanted to highlight Sonnie because she’s making an effort to create friendship and community through great home cooking and fun traditions, and that’s the kind of thing we love to see happening around us.
Fastnachts Recipe (from the Mennonite Community Cookbook)
1 1/4 cups milk
1/4 cup shortening
1 tsp salt
2 1/2 tsp yeast
3 eggs, beaten
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp nutmeg
4 1/2 to 5 cups sifted flour
(makes about 3 dozen)
Heat the milk till fairly warm, then mix in the salt and shortening. (The original recipe says to scald, but that’s probably not necessary unless you’re using unpasteurized milk.)
Add the yeast and mix in (if the milk is hot to the touch, wait for it to be closer to lukewarm).
Gradually add in 2.5 cups of the flour, beating thoroughly as you go to make a smooth batter.
Leave in a warm place until the batter is bubbly from the yeast.
Mix the sugar, eggs, and nutmeg, and beat into the original mixture.
Then, add the rest of the flour; just enough to make the dough kneadable but still tacky and not dry.
Knead well by hand or with the dough hook of a stand mixer, then cover and let rise for about an hour (or until doubled in bulk).
Once it’s risen, dump the dough on your counter and roll it evenly to about 3/4 inch thick. Use a biscuit cutter/cookie cutter/ some circular thing to cut the whole party into nice rounds. Lay the rounds on a lightly floured pan and cover until they become springy and puffed again (maybe 20-30 minutes).
Heat a large amount of oil for frying to about 350°-375°F. Once the oil is hot, drop the doughnuts in; the recipe suggests putting them in top-side first so the bottom can rise while it cooks.
Once they’re golden brown, remove from oil and drain, then cool on paper to absorb some of the excess oil.
That’s the recipe! Once you’re done, feel free to add some more excitement by coating the fastnachts in powdered sugar or something. For Sonnie’s party we did three coatings: powdered sugar, glazed, and cinnamon sugar. For the sugar versions, dump some of your coating in a doubled-up sandwich bag and shake the fastnachts inside until well coated.
For the cinnamon sugar version, do the same thing, except fill the bags with cinnamon mixed with granulated sugar rather than powdered.
For a glaze, simply make up a thick syrup with sugar and a little water mixed with something like honey or vanilla to flavor it. Dip the doughnuts one by one in the syrup and set aside to cool.
These are delicious, and better than any mass-produced doughnuts I’ve ever had. More importantly, it was a creative excuse to get people to spend time together and enjoy good food. Let it be an inspiration for your own adventures.
Thanks, foodies, and I’ll see you next time!