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Fasnacht: Donuts for Dinner

It's almost Ash Wednesday, time for Mardis Gras, Fat Tuesday, Pancake Day and Doughnut Day.

Although most of America -- or at least my part of it -- has now heard of Doughnut Day, such was not the case in my youth. Twenty years ago, no-one outside my family ate doughnuts for dinner, and not square, deep-fried doughnuts either. Doughnuts were round with holes, eaten with coffee at breakfast and covered in glaze, icing or powdered sugar.

But my grandmother, her cousins and her siblings made doughnuts for Fasnachttag. We aren't Catholic, so she wasn't using up the oil to prepare for Lenten fasting. Instead, the Lutherans living in mainly Catholic southern Germany (the Black Forest, Swabia and Bavaria) see no reason to forgo a good party because of minor religious differences. Although Philadelphia doesn't have parades and costume parties in the week leading up to Ash Wednesday, we had doughnuts Tuesday night.

My grandmother paid lip service to a balanced meal, serving noodle soup as a first course. Frankly, I think she picked something that wouldn't be too filling (like vegetable soup) and would leave room for doughnuts. Or maybe my grandfather objected to anything heartier than noodle soup. After the soup, she would bring out a platter of doughnuts as big as my little hand, fried just before Mom and I arrived.

Fasching is all about being wild and crazy, releasing steam in a stratified, rigid society. When you're seven, nothing seems wilder than having doughnuts for dinner.

And best of all.

Best of all.

One year I swear my birthday was on Fasnachttag.

That's right, one year I had doughnuts for dinner on my birthday.

Half the time Fasnachttag is within a week of my birthday -- close enough for me to have an extra doughnut and call it a birthday doughnut. But the best year it was on my actual birthday.

You would think that I've been making doughnuts since moving out on my own half a lifetime ago, or at least since my grandmother passed away. Not so. I rarely fried anything and had never gotten the recipe from my grandmother.

Two years ago, a German exchange student lived with us for ten months. It was time to make the doughnuts. It was time, not because he was from the Karneval-celebrating regions (Switzerland, south Germany and Cologne), but because he wasn't. The boy had missed seventeen years of week-long parties, the least I could do was make him doughnuts.

The first batch was edible. Anything coated in sugar isn't that bad, and that's the best that can be said for them. The second batch showed improvement, and the third batch was just right -- me and Goldilocks there.

I skipped last year, being too busy with a newborn.

This year I would not miss my doughnuts. Out came the Schwäbisch cookbook and the toddler was shooed into the living room with his father. Mid-way through, I realized I'd run out of eggs. I never run out of eggs. A drive to the convience store. The lights are on but the system is down. On to the next convience store, and I can return with the world's most expensive eggs. By this time the yeast has proofed for an hour, and the toddler is having a meltdown and needs to go to bed. The dough is kneaded, the toddler is put to bed, and I can start frying doughnuts.

Let's just say a year off did nothing for my doughnut skills. The dough was over-kneaded and had too much flour, making the doughnuts resemble fried bread dough. I fry in my wok and over-heated the oil, so the doughnuts cooked in seconds flat and rushed passed golden straight to brown. And bland, because I'd forgotten the salt.

Yet I ate them.

A second try for co-workers who had bought a small electric fryer and planned to christen it with a "fry-day" of batter-dipped Twinkies, Oreos, Thin Mints and other sugar bombs. This time the dough was just right, giving me one up on Miss Goldilocks.

And now, dear reader, I will explain the secret of the Fasnacht to you.

Technically, these are called Fasnachtsküchle, but in my pigden German they were always just Fasnachts. (Fasnacht is the night before the fast, and is spelled with a second t, Fastnacht, everywhere but Swaben and Switzerland.)

Dipping sugar

Measure 3 1/4 c. flour into a large (3 quart) bowl, and make a "well" in the flour. Just a hole, not all the way down to the bottom of the bowl. Pour some of the warmed milk into the well, about 1/4 c. Don't sweat being particulary accurate. Add in about 1 Tb. of the sugar and all the yeast. Mix the milk, sugar, yeast and a little bit of the surrounding flour into a batter.

Now, let it sit for half an hour. Keep the remaining milk covered and warm; I leave it on an electric burner turned to warm.

This is how all German recipes make yeast breads. Make a well in the flour, mix a little liquid, etc. It's called a Vorteig, a pre-dough. It proofs the yeast (that is, proves the yeast works -- very important when you buy yeast from a store that sells mostly Cheetos to college students). Years ago, before modern instant yeasts, this steps was also important to remove the dead yeast cells encapsulating a core of living cells; not strictly necessary in these days of instant yeast, but this is all about tradition.

Just before the half hour is up, melt the butter, then combine it with the remaining milk and sugar, the two eggs, beaten, and the salt. Mix this into the proofed yeast, and mix in the remaining flour. If the dough looks wet and gloopy, add up to a quarter cup flour more. However, you want a soft dough that isn't dry, unless you want fried bread dough rather than doughnuts.

Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead just until the dough is smooth, no more than a dozen times. This is not the time for an upper body work out; that's foccaccia. The dough should be soft, sticking just a bit to the heel of your hand. Put it into a bowl (about quart-size), cover and put into a warm room for half an hour.

This is a good time to do the dishes. Of course, in my house, any time is good for the dishes, they always seem to be there.

After half an hour, the dough with not have doubled in size. This is OK. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and roll out to be about 3/8 to 1/2 inch thick. (When I made these directions, I measured the thickness, but measuring the height and width would have been better.) Using a pizza or pastry cutter (mine's plastic and says "Guiseppe's" on it -- best pizza in Bucks County), cut the dough into strips about three fingers wide. Cut each strip into rectangles about the size of the palm of your hand, or into squares, or diamonds. Or skip the strips and cut them into circles with a drinking glass, and cut the holes out with a shot glass, like my grandmother did when I complained that doughnuts are round, not square. Cut out all the doughnuts before frying.

Right now you can stop and freeze the doughnuts to fry them later. This will almost stop the yeast completely, but won't kill it. Place doughnuts onto a sheet of wax paper on a plate or baking sheet (plate is easier to transport); doughnuts should not touch each other. When the wax paper is covered, put down another sheet, etc. Cover with a last sheet of wax paper, then tinfoil and freeze.

In a wide soup bowl or on a plate, mix 1/3 c. sugar with cinnamon. Stir until cinnamon coats the sugar. There should be just enough cinnamon to give a hint to the final doughnut.

Heat canola or peanut oil to 350 to 375 degrees. An electric frypan would be really good for this. If you are frying without benefit of a self-calibrating appliance (say, frying in your wok), make sure the thermometer is calibrated: boil some water. Does the thermometer read 212 degrees? No? Time for a new one.

Gently slide in a few doughnuts; not so many that the oil is crowded. Cook until golden brown, flip and cook the other side to golden. If the oil is not too hot, this should take at least two minutes a side.

Drain on paper towels and cool enough to handle.

Drop each doughnut into the cinnamon sugar, and coat.

Eat immediately or within 24 hours. If you can't eat them immediately, and will be able to fry them when you can eat them, freeze the dough before frying.

Alles Gutes!