The fastnacht tradition was brought to the United States by German immigrants, many of whom settled in Pennsylvania Dutch country. It eventually spread from the mid-Atlantic states to the Midwest. Some intriguing lore traveled with the fastnacht, including the notion that the oil the fastnachts were fried in had magical curative powers. Another belief was that if they were not eaten on Shrove Tuesday, bad luck would ensue – in the form of failed crops, for example, or outbreaks of boils. On a lighter note, the Pennsylvania Dutch had a Shrove Tuesday tradition in which the last person out of bed that day was nicknamed "Fastnacht" or "Lazy Fastnacht" and had to eat the last, least shapely doughnut. I don’t see how that could be much of a punishment.
Most German fastnacht recipes consist of milk, sugar, shortening, yeast, eggs, and flour. Pennsylvania Dutch recipes generally include potatoes, and they also specify a rectangular shape, which after cooking is sliced in half like a bagel and spread with syrup or molasses. But my grandmother followed the German tradition of making all sorts of shapes, from knots and braids to pretzels and ladder-like rectangles. The pretzel itself has a Lenten derivation, and according to legend, the shape was invented by a seventh-century monk who wanted it to symbolize two arms crossed in prayer.
Whatever their origin, the shapes of fastnachts seem to subtly influence their flavor. One of my brothers swears by the ladders, while I prefer the knots and pretzels, which pull apart nicely and have pale nooks and crannies that are slightly moister.
Fastnachts are more time-consuming to make than difficult. There are two challenges: working enough flour into the dough, which is easier if you mix it in a very large bowl; and keeping the frying oil at the right temperature. It’s ideal to learn a dish like this at a patient grandmother’s side, but my grandmother Helen Keeley’s recipe, below, is full of detail and should produce good results for everyone. (And for those who want to follow the rules, Shrove Tuesday falls on March 8th this year.)