Shrove Tuesday, you may know it better as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, is the last day of indulgence before a 40-day fast known as Lent. And it, without a doubt, makes my Top 5 Eves before a Christian holy day list. Not because I’m religious, I’m not. I just like how it reminds me of that day before any of my planned diet starts, when I eat all my favorites one last time, like I'm being sent to the electric chair. And the donuts, I really like the donuts.
For hundreds of years, Christian cultures throughout the world have prepared for their lengthened fast by “emptying the cupboards” of all their flour, eggs and milk for a delicious day of snacking. Depending on the culture, determines the tasty treat.
Paczki at Pancake High
In Great Britain, the day before Ash Wednesday is affectionately known as pancake day, a tradition that has trickled its way into the States as well. You can tell I am obviously a seasoned traveler, hence my use of "The States". No seriously folks, pancakes are delicious and the fact IHOP, House of Pancakes and Dennys acknowledge the day annually is pretty cool, but did I mention the donuts!
In Polish American neighborhoods throughout the country, the scent of sugary fried dough perfume the air as Eastern European bakers wake up early to prepare paczki. Pronounced ponch-key, these Polish deep-fried yeast pastries are rich and airy with just the right amount of chew. They are usually filled with custard or old-world jams like rosehip and prune, dare I say an elevated jelly donut. And depending on who makes it, they can be plain, rolled in granular sugar, dipped in a sticky glaze or showered with confectionary sugar. One of my personal favorites, Polonia Bakery in Passaic NJ, has been serving these traditional donuts religiously (haha get it) since the 1950's. Meanwhile, shops like the Oakmont Bakery in Pittsburgh, have upped the game with their gourmet assortment of flavors like cherry, coconut and cookies 'n cream, a trend that's been spreading. If this is your first paczki experience, I strongly suggest you start out with a traditional rosehip jelly sprinkled in sugar. Enjoy the sweet & tart contrast with a black coffee. And don't be afraid to dip.
I Drive a Fastnacht
The Pennsylvania Dutch, an actual misnomer as most of the original settlers in Lancaster County were German immigrants, celebrate the day by making fastnacht pronounced fahs-nahts and translates to fast night. These sweet, deep-fried yeast donuts are fried to a crispy exterior, with a soft pillowy inside and are typically served rolled in cinnamon, sugar or glaze. Many recipes include a potato flour that adds to the dessert’s density. It’s common to slice the donut in half and lather with butter and syrup or molasses. Unlike its Polish cousin, the name fastnacht really hasn't transcended outside the boundaries of Pennsylvania.
For some reason that I have yet to figure out, Kinklings, a similar potato and yeast donut of German origin, is only celebrated in Frederick Maryland and can be ordered during the weeks leading up to Lent. In New Orleans, the popular beignets and the ornate King Cake are consumed in mass quantities before the fast.
Paczki and fastnachts are like fingerprints, no two are exactly alike and that's what makes this food fun. Round, square, sticky, sugary... Next year, consider putting these seasonal treats on your radar and be on the lookout for them at your local bakery and grocery store. And if you can't find any around you, there's always a short stack.