When is a donut not a donut?
When it's a hand-crafted, edible pillow of doughy deliciousness, made from a recipe that stretches back three to four generations, fried to a golden brown and snuggled in a drift of sugar.
In other words, when it's a Fasnacht.
Fasnachts are a seasonal treat from Germany, associated with Fat Tuesday, the day to clear out all sugar, flour, oil and other treat-making ingredients from pantries just prior to sacrificial weeks of Lent. The process is quite labor intensive, which has caused many commercial bakeries to abandon the tradition.
Or skimp, says Mary Dice, owner/operator of Dice's Creative Cakes, Boyertown. "Some grocery stores will sell a round, unfilled donuts and call them fasnachts. But they're not. They can't grasp the artistry of it."
And Dice would know. Her formula, passed from her aunt to her mother to her, involves the use of potatoes as a leavening agent, making a result that is much lighter and fluffier than their commercial counterparts. All told, Dice Creative Cakes goes through 80 pounds of potatoes, 600 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of sugar and 750 eggs to meet the demand. "That makes about 750 dozen," Dice explains.
Dice motions to a tray that is resting. "That's when I like them best," she says. "Right out of the fryer, they're still too ‘loose.' And too hot. I like them warm, after they've sat for a little bit." She offers me one, pausing to roll it in a bowl of powdered sugar. The small level of residual heat on the crust causes the dusting of confectioner's sugar to melt just slightly, and the result is sheer heaven. It's tough to say no to a second, so I don't, but it's easy to see how the consumption of fasnachts opens the door to a season of fasting and atonement. Each one is an estimated 200-400 calories, and it's impossible to eat just one.
While I'm blissfully licking the moustache of sugar from my upper lip, the pastry prep continues. Dice lifts a heavy bucketful of a pale, airy, rich-smelling concoction, readying it for the next step. "We let the dough rise overnight," she says. "We then roll it out and hand-cut it into squares. These rise one more time in the oven. Then they're ready to be fried."
All the while she's narrating, Dice is busy. Measures of dough approximately the size of a dinner plate are thumped onto her work surface, sending up powdery puffs of flour. A rolling pin flattens these discs into manageable circles that are then cut into strips. With the sure hand of someone who has done this thousands of times, Dice slices through the strips with a tool that looks like a crimped pizza cutter, making squares. These are quickly flipped onto a baking tray with the speed and accuracy of a blackjack dealer. Before being allowed to rest their final time, Dice pokes each one with a knifepoint. "It lets some of the air out," she explains.
These then go into the oven and the process repeats itself. Again and again. Rack after rack. "The most I've ever made in one day is 180 dozen," Dice says. That's 2,160 individual fasnachts.
Dice has a sixth sense about her fried treats, stemming from many years' experience. While chatting with me about the fasnacht tradition, she's aware of every aspect of their creation. But without fully diverting her attention from my questions, she knows enough to advise from across the kitchen: "Those are done on that side. Turn them."
The timeframe for these treats is flexible, depending on when Ash Wednesday falls on the calendar. "Some years, when Lent begins early, we're not even fully done with Christmas cookies before we start making fasnachts," Dice says. Other years, like this one, there's more breathing room. She started this process in early February and will continue until her supplies are gone.
It is a much anticipated item, Dice says. "The first day we started making them this season," she laughs. "We hadn't even gotten around to placing a sign in the window that we had them. But a woman stopped in to buy some. I asked her how she knew they were available. ‘I smelled them,' she said."
Given that the scent does indeed seep from the walls of the small storefront, which is nested within Boyertown's commercial district like something from a theme park main street, it's easy to believe.
Fat Tuesday goodies from Dice Creative Cakes aren't the only local ways to mark the calendar's progress toward Easter and spring. Consider these others:
- The Manor House in Horsham is holding a Mardi Gras extravaganza on March 4, hosted by Horsham Township and the Greater Horsham Chamber of Commerce. The party includes Cajun cuisine and Zydeco music, plus some enticing raffle baskets.
- Each and every day, the Crumbs Bake Shop (UPDATE: now closed) at King of Prussia Mall has a spectacular array of cupcakes and other sweets. Try the "Crumbnut," their signature take on the croissant/donut hybrid you've heard so much about.
- If you're about to embark on a six-week give-up of chocolate, why not indulge one last time from Asher's Chocolates? You can then prep your taste buds for all that Easter candy!
- Lent usually means an uptick in the taste for seafood, whether for religious reasons or just an opportunity to vary the weekly meal plan. Legal Sea Foods and Joe's Crab Shack are local favorites, where you can forget floundering around for a takeout dinner for home. Or bring your school of guppies down the pike for a sit-down dinner that is off the scales.
One more recommendation of a treat for you and your family: A nice getaway in one of the signature hotels listed on our website. Our Cabin Fever Reliever campaign is approaching its final weeks. "Beware the ides of March" was Shakespeare's stern warning to Julius Caesar, advice that applies to our special deals and discounts as well. They expire March 15.