Fat Tuesday, Carnaval, Shrove Tuesday, Fasching, Fastelavn—for as many different names there are for Mardi Gras, there’s just as many food-related traditions.
Famous in the United States, of course, are king cake and beignets in New Orleans. Shrove Tuesday in Great Britain consists of a pancake feast. Fat Tuesday is on a Thursday in Poland, but their deep-fried treasure pączki is so renowned some just call it Pączki Day. Topped with powdered sugar, pączki are crispy on the outside and soft and thick in the middle with delicious jelly filling. Other countries have similar treats by different names. Lithuanians have spurgos, which are pretty similar—with the exception that they’re sometimes made with rum and raisins, or other times with cottage cheese. The Portuguese have malasadas, typically unfilled, but very sugary, balls sometimes formed into a unique triangular shape. Scandinavians, meanwhile, enjoy semla, or fastelavnboller, which are cream-filled baked buns
I grew up eating krapfen, also called Berliners in German, and similar to French Mardi Gras beignets, these treats, too, are a fried dough delicacy. Consuming massive amounts of fried dough on Fat Tuesday came out of the European Catholic tradition of ridding the home of especially indulgent ingredients, like butter, sugar, and fat, before the Lenten fasting season began. But my heart was always with the tradition on my mother’s side, a second-generation family of German immigrants living in Wisconsin, of enjoying küchle on Fat Tuesday or Fasching—also called Fastnacht or Karneval in German.
In the weeks leading up to Lent, a visit to my Oma’s house in Milwaukee would include a pile of these delicious deep-fried, saucer-shaped treats. With snow covering the ground outside, the powdered sugar sprinkled dessert was a warm comfort as the end of winter neared. Küchle weren’t exactly a centerpiece of the season—like Pączki Day—but like the snow, it was just expected they would be there during that time of year at Oma’s house. For Oma, it brought her closer to the culture and family tradition she left behind when she moved to the United States with my Opa in 1960. (She’ll be the first to tell you she’s not as good at making them as her sister, Annie.)
Before my grandparents moved to the United States, my Oma lived in a small town in Bavaria, where her German Catholic family has been based for generations; her siblings all still live in the town where she grew up. Baker and cookbook author Kerstin Rentsch explains in a blog post for a Bavarian tourism website that küchle is one of the oldest culinary traditions in the region, and its earliest variations likely started in 14th-century abbey bakeries.
Feeling a seasonal pang of nostalgia this year, I set out to make them by myself for the first time. Küchle is made from a light, fluffy yeast dough and pulled into discs have a thick, inner-tube shaped ring on the outside and paper thin layer connecting the middle. They’re then deep fried on both sides and topped with powdered sugar and a little cinnamon.
I followed one of the only English translations I could find online. (Rentsch notes that even finding some of these recipes was a challenge in writing her cookbooks as “families guard their recipes like gold.”) Then I cross-checked it with a photo that my mom sent me from her German-language cookbook, and then went over a final gut check with Oma over the phone. (We ended up halving the recipe I found online.)
Yeast dough wants to be warm, as Oma told me—the last time she made these they “caught a draft,” and didn’t turn out—so I followed this really easy method to proof dough in the microwave. I was all ready to go with my fluffy dough, listening carefully as Oma told me how to gently stretch and mold the dough into their unique shape. Everything was going smoothly until I started a short-lived—but pretty large—grease fire that scared the living daylights out of me. (For anyone making küchle, or really any home-fried treat, I encourage you to read this about how to prevent grease fires before you begin frying.)
My lovely 87-year-old Oma was none-the-wiser and ultimately thought we got disconnected and hung up. I called her back and explained what happened, she told me—as every good grandparent will—that we don’t have to tell my mom about this if I don’t want to. She told me she was “so proud of me for trying,” and she laughed when I said I was glad that I didn’t lose my eyebrows.
So much technique can be lost in translation when these recipes are passed down the generations, translated from native tongues and modernized for contemporary kitchens and techniques, and there’s truly no substitution for firsthand knowledge. The alternative isn’t always a dramatic grease fire, but sometimes, or in my case at least, it is. If you don’t have someone to walk you through it, support a local bakery!