The Fleeting Flavor Of Philadelphia's Fat Tuesday Fastnacht Donuts

Feb 25, 2020
Originally published on February 25, 2020 4:23 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's Fat Tuesday, and all day long, people have flocked to a tiny bakery in northwest Philadelphia. Their sights are set on a special kind of doughnut made only once a year. NPR's Neda Ulaby got in line.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Fastnacht means feast night in German, and fastnacht doughnuts have kind of a cult following here in Philadelphia. Haegele's Bakery makes them only two days a year. And on Fat Tuesday, the line starts forming around 4 a.m.

Customer Joe Blosh says getting up early is worth it.

JOE BLOSH: It's the best doughnuts around (laughter).

ALICE DUTKIEWICZ: Tell me about it. Tell me about it. I've been coming here about 20 years.

ULABY: Alice Dutkiewicz grew up eating fastnacht doughnuts in her Polish-German family. Traditionally, these doughnuts were a way for people to empty out their cupboards before Lent, says Cheryl Haegele. She's one of the bakery's co-owners.

CHERYL HAEGELE: Sometimes called a butter sponge doughnut or a butter doughnut because of the cream that's in it.

ULABY: Haegele's Bakery has been open for 90 years. Since Sunday, three generations of Haegeles have been working 18-hour days, flipping, frying and rolling fastnacht doughnuts in sugar. Cheryl Haegele admits she has no idea how many they sell.

C HAEGELE: We see thousands of customers come through the door. They're all walking out with more than one box (unintelligible).

ULABY: How many are you buying?

DUTKIEWICZ: I'm buying three. I eat half of them before I get home.

(LAUGHTER)

DUTKIEWICZ: Always did - can't wait for the coffee.

ULABY: Customer Alice Dutkiewicz says she knows what makes these doughnuts special.

DUTKIEWICZ: The dough, I guess - the dough. It's different - different than regular doughnuts.

ULABY: She's right, says Cheryl Haegele. High-gluten flour gets these doughnuts their airy structure even though they're packed with cream and eggs. The dough's rolled out in 16-pound sheets and sliced - still - by hand.

C HAEGELE: Normally, you would never have a dough with that much heavy cream in it. It would collapse. So it's a two-part dough. So in order to make every doughnut, you're actually...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good morning.

C HAEGELE: ...Using two doughs put together - a sponge dough and a doughnut dough.

ULABY: These labor-intensive doughnuts would not work, says 87-year-old Richard Haegele, if he was not making them with his son and grandkids, who have the process down.

RICHARD HAEGELE: All they have to do is nod to somebody and look - point down. They know what that - they have to do now.

ULABY: Haegele got the recipe from his father, who immigrated from Germany after World War I and opened up this corner bakery crammed with jelly rolls, butter cookies and cheesecake. This is Philadelphia. But today, nobody wants anything but fastnacht doughnuts.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: A dozen and a half but only two powdered.

ULABY: After the last doughnut is sold today, the Haegeles will go straight to bed. But their rest will not last long. Already, says Cheryl Haegele, the family is soaking currants in preparation for making hot cross buns for Easter.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAGGIE ROGERS SONG, "ALASKA (SOFI TUKKER REMIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.