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Fastnachts: an Old-Fashioned Treat
Written by Kelly Chandler Staff Writer
2016-02-10

Chris Hoffman, a member of Friedens UCC, places trays of fastnachts in the proofing room so they can rise  before the final step of deep frying. This year the church is making enough to fill more than 200 dozen orders. 

        For many in the region, Fastnacht Day translates to warm memories.  It's that unmistakable rich, yeasty flavor of a doughnut, minus the hole if you're traditional; a one-of-a-kind, once-a-year indulgence. 

        Fastnachts, a conventional Pennsylvania Dutch food, were made on Shrove Tuesday, or Fastnacht Day, to use up all the fat (usually lard) and sugar, before the start of the Lenten fast.

        "A lot of it has to do with the time, it was traditionally the time of year you get fresh lard," said Hereford Township historian Carl Arner.  "Since you butcher from about late January through March, it was time to get rid of the older lard leftover from the year before.  The Pennsylvania Dutch were very frugal about using things instead of having them spoil.  With Easter coming, they would use a lot of the fat/lard up with baking."

        Authentic yeast-raised fastnachts are made with mashed potatoes, and many times potato water (poured off the potatoes after boiling), and are rectangular in shape.  And if you ask an old-timer, fastnachts shouldn't be covered in sugar or glaze, but instead enjoyed sliced in half with honey or molasses.  Many also like to dunk them in a cup of tea or coffee.

        Arner said the tradition is something he remembers fondly dating back to his childhood. 

        "Fastnachts are something my grandparents always made and they used lard in most anything baked—breads, cakes, pies…At our church, Huffs Church, we used to work all through the night, sleeping in the chapel on shifts, to make all kids of raised cakes and fastnachts this time of year.

        "It's a tradition that's been passed down and on.  Like a lot of things, there are less and less people doing them."

        But at a small church in Sumneytown, perched atop a hill, about a dozen volunteers were busy at work early Monday morning mixing dough and hand-cutting fastnachts.  It is one of the only locations in the region still making and selling the old-fashioned treats.

        Chris Hoffman, a member of Friedens UCC, said the church uses a true fastnacht recipe passed own from one of their older members.  It includes warm mashed potatoes, warm milk, potato water, yeast, sugar, flour, melted Crisco (shortening) and salt.  This year the group is making enough to fill more than 200 dozen orders.

        Starting Sunday morning, they began mixing the dough so it had time to proof (rise) for about two hours before being kneaded and rolled out and cut.  At Frieden's, they roll out the dough and cut it by hand, either with a knife or a pizza cutter, into rectangular sections.

        "Everyone cuts them a little different but they don't have holes," Hoffman said, "because that would be false advertising.  Donuts have holes; fastnachts don't."

        After being cut, the fastnachts are placed on greased trays and set aside to rise again before being fried in vegetable oil.  They are then placed in bags or boxes plain or topped with confectioner's sugar or granulated sugar.

        "People really like them.  About 85 percent of our customers are repeats from last year," said Hoffman.  "It's a great dough and it's one of our biggest fundraisers."

        The volunteers making fastnachts at Frieden's are a talented group.  Hoffman said they started the weekend with making soups and hoagies for the big game and will also be handmaking Easter candy, including butter cream, peanut butter, peanut butter crunch and coconut flavors, next month as a fundraiser.

        It seems that no matter what your age, though, a fastnacht is a really popular treat.

        "I look forward to eating them, not making them, every year," said Alec Hoffman, who was in charge of mixing the dough.

        "I look forward to both," quipped Fred Morris of Green Lane.  "But mostly I look forward to putting my feet on the ground in the morning."

        Volunteer Bob Gray said Fastnacht Day was nostalgic for him.  "My neighbor would always make them and bring them over when we lived up the line," he said of his childhood.  "It's one of those things you remember."   


 

 

 

 

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