Nearly Night (Fastnacht Kuecheles...recipe and lore)
This is a recipe that I post every year just before Lent. I usually post it on Shrove Tuesday--the traditional day these doughnuts are eaten--but thought I'd post it a day earlier in the event anyone would like to make them (and I hope you do). I was lucky enough to be brought up with food traditions on both sides of my family. I had mentioned in an earlier post that I was Lebanese-American on my father's side, well my mother's side of the family is of German-French ancestry. The recipe below I received from one of my sisters, who learned it from our mother, who learned it from our grandmother, and so on.. The name of these doughnuts in German is fastnacht kuecheles and they are very similar to the French or New Orleans biegnet. They are traditionally eaten the day before Lent as a (now mostly symbolic) act of using up all the rich, luxurious, and fatty foods before spending the next 40 days in introspection (living lean). The names of the day may change from one tradition to another but they all basically mean the same thing. The English name is Shrove Tuesday...shrove is the past tense of shrive, loosely meaning to offer confession or penance. In French, Mardi Gras translates literally as Fat Tuesday...the last of the "fatty stuff" for 40 days. And Carnival, translates loosely as "farewell to meat," or "farewell to flesh," meaning goodbye to meat and/or carnal pleasures for a while. What I find interesting is something new I learned about the German version of these doughnuts, not so much the recipe itself but its etymology. I have been fascinated with languages my entire life but know almost nothing (fast nichts) about German. Anyhow, I always thought that the word for these doughnuts--fastnachts--meant fast night, or the night before the fast...Lent. And this still may be true. But when I did some electronic translating and broke the phrase into two words--fast nacht--I've come to see that it translates literally as almost night, likely making reference to the somber darkness that shrouds the next 40 days of the Christian Calendar. Unrelated but still related to this recipe, the word kuecheles, is likely a variation of küchle, meaning fritter. Anyhow, these are very simple to make and super-delicious. The one thing that's not shown in the photos but is included in the recipes (and is the best part) is that they are tossed in powdered sugar while still warm. And I can still hear my mother's voice from when I was a boy and tossing the kuecheles with eager anticipation (just as I do today)..."Joey," she would yell while standing in front of her frying pan, "You're getting sugar everywhere." And I likely was.
Makes about 3 dozen
1 cup milk (room temperature)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
4 tablespoons yeast
6-7 cups all-purpose flour, divided
3 large eggs
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon salt
Combine the water, milk, sugar, yeast, and two cups of flour in a large bowl. Allow to rest for 1 hour, or until the yeast is fully active. Transfer to an upright mixing bowl with a dough hook. Add the eggs, melted butter, salt, and 4 cups of flour. Run the mixer on low for 1 minute (if the dough seems too sticky add the remaining cup flour) then turn to medium and knead for 5 minutes. Transfer to a lightly oiled bowl, cover and let rest at room temperature for about an hour, or until double in size. Transfer the dough to a floured work surface and cut into three pieces. Shape into balls, cover, and let rest 20 minutes. Roll into large circles about 1/4 inch thick, then cut the dough into diamonds 2-4 inches wide. Cover the diamonds with a cloth and let rest 10 minutes. Preheat a couple inches of vegetable oil to 350F in a heavy skillet. Carefully fry the fastnachts in batches, cooking them for a couple minutes on each side until they are puffed and golden-brown; drain on absorbent paper. Allow them to cool for a few minutes, then toss a few at a time in a paper bag with confectionery sugar.