What Are Fasnachts? The Story Behind a Pennsylvania Dutch Delicacy

If you’ve lived in Pennsylvania for a long time, no doubt you’ve heard of fasnachts. For the uninitiated, a fasnacht (faws-nahk) is essentially a deep-fried donut served, as you might guess, on Fasnacht Day.

But what is Fasnacht Day, you ask? For many people who observe the church calendar, it is simply Shrove Tuesday, the Tuesday before Lent begins. In many countries, people celebrate by feasting on pancakes. In Pennsylvania Dutch country, we celebrate by eating fasnachts instead. They were originally made as a way to empty the pantry of fats and sugar before the fasting days of Lent began.

Over the holidays, I spent some time in the Berks History Center paging through copies of The Pennsylvania Dutchman, a magazine devoted to Pennsylvania Dutch Folk-Culture published at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. I was not surprised to see fasnachts among the many Pennsylvania Dutch recipes shared in its pages.

“Every properly regulated Pennsylvania German home celebrated each recurring Shrove Tuesday by making ‘Fastnacht Kucha,'” said one writer. “These are a kind of glorified doughnut. Bread dough, made richer by the addition of an egg or two and some butter or lard, is set to rise. Then it is cut into small squares, each with several slashes through the middle. These are again allowed to rise, and then dropped into boiling lard. Whether or not the shape improved the taste, I cannot say, but it is certain that no other ‘fat cakes,’ as I’ve heard people call them, ever tasted so good.”

The Pennsylvania Dutchman also had some fascinating lore about Fasnacht Day:

  • The last one out of bed becomes the “fasnacht and is teased unmercifully all day long,” writes Alfred L. Shoemaker, “not only by the members of his family but by his schoolmates as well.”
  • Some farmers would feed the first fresh-baked fasnachts to their chickens. “The folk-belief was that if one did this the hawks would not fetch the chickens or chicks in the spring,” writes Shoemaker. “Mrs. Amelia Hildenbrand of Mount Carmel area of Northampton County says her mother cut up the first three fasnachts for the chickens because she believed this would make them lay more eggs.”

This February, fasnachts are coming to Weaver’s Orchard for a limited time! In 2020, Fasnacht Day is Tuesday February 25! We will have fasnachts available starting Thursday, February 13th with some red décor on them for Valentine’s Day. Then we’ll be taking orders for anytime between then and Fasnacht day. They will be available in plain, powdered, sugared and glazed. Be sure to place an order to make sure you’ll get some!

Fasnachts are delicious when dunked! In Lancaster and Lebanon counties, known as “the saffron belt,” fasnacht cakes were traditionally dunked in saffron tea. They are also delicious dunked in coffee!

Learn more about other traditional Pennsylvania Dutch food!

PA Dutch Potato Filling

When I first learned of this dish, I assumed it was another word for mashed potatoes. But no. Oh no. It’s so much more. It’s more like a combination of mashed potatoes and “stuffing” or “dressing.”

Amish Half-moon Pies

Authentic half-moon pies can be made sweet or savory. This recipe uses a “schnitz” filling, which tastes like an incredibly flavorful apple butter.

Apples & Sweet Potatoes

This recipe is a slice of history. It comes from a 1911 Church of the Brethren cookbook called The Inglenook Cookbook, which reminds me of mennonite classics like the More-with-Less cookbook because it gathers recipes from many cooks across the country.