What I know from Poland as Fat Thursday happens a couple of days later in Austria and is called a Faschingsdienstag. Both days are about eating doughnuts and announce the same thing: the time of crazy eating and partying is coming to an end, get ready for Lent. And even though most people don’t fast anymore, they do still enjoy a good Krapfen.
I will never forget my first Fat Thursday in Vienna. First of all, no one seemed to care about it as they go nuts for doughnuts on a Tuesday after. But you can easily find them. So I got myself some, got a bite… and nearly cried. Both Polish and Austrian Krapfen have a characteristic ring circling the center. This ring will be called “Bauchbinde” or “Ranftl” in Austria. So far so good. However, the Austrian version is filled with apricot (Marillen) marmalade and dusted with powdered sugar while the Polish one is filled with rose petal marmalade and then either dusted with powdered sugar or glazed. And that’s when my horror started. I was by no means ready for such a culture shock. Luckily I found an amazing bakery making proper Polish doughnuts but in the meantime, I sort of converted – I actually do enjoy the apricot filled doughnuts from time to time. Let us look back at their story.
Trust your grandma… or not?
Doughnuts and lard baked goods have a long tradition in both countries. They were baked not only in the carnival season but also for other occasions – after the harvest for example. In Poland some housewives back in the day used to fill doughnuts with almonds and nuts. Doughnuts in general were seen as a token of good luck and prosperity. That’s why some believe we should never refuse to have at least one doughnut. There is no “one” recipe for this delicacy. Most of the people that still make them at home will have a secret family recipe that they swear by, handed down through generations. But I think mastery only comes with experience. I know people who attempted to bake doughnuts following grandma’s recipe and they were nowhere near as good as hers.
The Mayor that made fat Thursday merry
In Małopolska where I come from there was a very specific way to celebrate fat Thursday. It was called “Comber Thursday”. According to a legend, the name comes from the name of a mayor, Comber, who was evil and especially strict towards the women who had their stalls on the main market square. He supposedly died on a Fat Thursday. On each anniversary of his death female stallholders organised boisterous merrymaking where they bugged men and forced them to dance or to give up pieces of clothing in return for all the injustice caused them by the mayor in the past. Comber Thursday was organised in Krakow until 1846 when Austrian authorities forbade the fest.
The kind of balls that both women and men crave
Here in Austria, there is a 400 year old legend about how Krapfen became a thing. According to it the Viennese Hofratsköchin (imperial chef) Cäcilie Krapf, called Frau Cilly, got angry with her apprentice and threw a ball of yeast dough at him. This landed in a pot full of hot lard. And that’s how the very first Krapfen was made. If you want things to be more spicy another version of this legend claims she got angry with her husband. That might explain why some called doughnuts “Cilly’s balls” (Cillys Kugeln).
If you want a more probable version: in the middle ages the so called “Craphun” appeared on monasteries’ tables. As you can expect, Lent was rather strictly abode in monasteries so they had to use up the butter, eggs and lard that were still in the pantry before the fasting time started. Fatty, but very fulfilling doughnuts prepared the residents of the monastery for the frugal times. Perfect execution of #zerowaste I’d say. And also very tasty.
In 1897 we could read in Neues Wiener Journal that Krapfen are made of wheat flour and eggs and baked in butter or lard. They were filled with marmalade, almonds or raisins. While on the New Year’s Eve there would be 60 thousands Krapfen sold, on the Faschingsdienstag this number rose to over one hundred thousands. 13 years earlier – in 1884 one could read in Neues Wiener Tagblatt that Krapfen are “no longer what they used to be and even the lesser educated know that”. Over 100 years later, in 2020 the Viennese still complain but their doughnuts still seem to be doing just fine.
A long way to become soft, fluffy and sweet
However, doughnuts-like goods have much longer tradition than both Poland and Austria can remember. I mentioned in the beginning that Fat Thursday or Faschingsdienstag symbolise the approaching Lent time. Don’t assume though that fat Thursday is only about christian traditions. Historical sources point that the custom already existed in pagan Poland and was tied to saying goodbye to winter. But back then it was rather bacon-filled bread. Romans ate something very similar and drank obscene amounts of wine with it. It is worth mentioning though that they were not sweet in the beginning. The sweetness is probably a result of a culture mix with an arab cuisine. The round shape became a thing in the 17th century when yeast was added to the recipe And that made the dough more fluffy. Back then doughnuts in Poland were known as Kreple (what confirms their Austrian origin where they are called Krapfen). In the 18th century Jędrzej Kitowicz, author of the treatise Description of customs during the Reign of August III described doughnuts as “fluffy and light”. According to his relation the old-fashioned ones could easily give someone a black-eye when thrown at their face.
Now, doughnuts are still “fluffy and light” and it is commonly believed an ideal Polish doughnut is a tiny bit sunken in the middle. Light ring around the middle proves it was fried in fresh oil. It should weigh between 55 and 77 grams and be fried in temperature between 175 and 190 degrees Celsius. Bad news if you count calories: one donut has approximately 240 calories. Each Pole statistically eats 2,5 doughnuts on a fat Thursday. But it does not matter. We love them. Even the Polish language proves how much we love them. The proverb “to live like a doughnut in butter” means someone is really peachy.
How doughnuts caused Americans trouble
Poles loved their doughnuts a lot. So much so that American doughnuts never managed to break through to the market, opposed to cupcakes and muffins that were quite a hit. Maybe it is because of the hole in the middle? I mean, we like to get what we pay for so why get rid of perfectly good middle of the doughnut where the marmalade usually sits? Nowadays though we seem to be more open to even quite extravagant concepts like vanilla custard or chocolate ganache. Pastry chefs and bakers accommodate also those who are vegan and gluten-free even though the traditional recipe calls for frying them in lard. The only rule that does not change is to properly aerate the dough – that’s how the doughnuts get light and fluffy.
As if this wasn’t enough, did you hear about the American president who called himself a doughnut? Doughnuts are called Berliner (Berliner Ballen to be exact) in parts of Germany. So as you probably know, J.F. Kennedy was in west Berlin in 1963. He wanted to please the crowd with his attempt at German during his speech. Only he said “Ich bin eine Berliner” instead of “Ich bin Berliner” effectively calling himself a doughnut instead of a citizen of Berlin. But apparently it is only an urban legend since people in Berlin they call doughnuts “Pfannkuchen”. I effectively called myself once one of Piers wives in a similar way but that’s a story for another time.
P.S: if you are interested in my findings about Viennese doughnuts, head to my Instagram highlights, I found a really delicious one! https://www.instagram.com/stories/highlights/18117080335078812/