Everybody knows about Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, as it is celebrated here in the US. So, what is Jeudi Gras? Okay, I have to admit it, I just made up the term, but “Fat Thursday” is what a number of European countries celebrate as an equivalent. The origin is the same, though the weekday in Carnival season may vary.
Why “fat” anyhow? It all comes down to the church incorporating a heathen tradition into Christian new ones. As European heathens used to chase winter and/or winter spirits out of their countries or to celebrate the beginning of spring (as in ancient Rome), wearing masks and making lots of noise, the church embraced the tradition to mark the final days before Lent. Depending on the region in my mother country, Germany, costumes are either on the more modern side or really down to wooden masks, scary dances, and even to beating spectators with branches.
The culinary side though is what has given those “fat” days their name: a last indulgence in rich, greasy foods or, simply, over-indulgence. In Southwest Germany, “Schmotziger Dunschdig” (‘Shmot-tzee-gah ‘Doonshtick) or “Greasy Thursday” was always the day when the legendary Carnival baking started off – with deep-fried yeast pastries. “Berliner” (no plural “s”) are a kind of doughnut ball (without the whole), filled with jam and covered with sugar. There are flatter variants without filling, or simply doughballs as in doughnut holes. Anything deep-fried that used up the winter-storage of oils and butter. Of course, in modern times, there is no “winter storage” of fats anymore. But the tradition of starting the baking on that day has prevailed. Bakeries have started varying the filling even. And in some Carnival heartlands, they put mustard into some of the sweet Berliner – as a prank surprise.
Where and when does the tradition of “Berliner” – you might relate to them as jelly doughnuts – originate? The first, then revolutionary recipe for them (it used sugared preserves!) was allegedly printed in a Nuremberg cookbook of 1485. Think Gutenberg printing press – this is revolutionary in itself! Luckily, in the 16th century sugar prices dropped rapidly due to worldwide exploration and, therefore, the wider availability of cane sugar. Preserves made it more and more to the general population and turned the once expensive luxury recipe into a more affordable carnival item. Though it was by far not as common as it is today in the entire scope of Northern Europe. These days, people inject the jam or jelly into the deep-fried dough-balls with a pastry syringe rather than painfully shape the dough ball around its filling as in former times.
But why call the item “Berliner” in the first place? And mind you, in some German regions they call it something else, e.g. a Fasnachtskrapfen (pronounce ‘fuss-nuhts-krupp-fen), a carnival fritter. The name has been sticking around since sometime in the 1800s. Legend has it that, in the 1700s, a patriotic baker from Berlin became a field baker with the Prussian military and, having no mobile oven, began to fry his doughnuts over the open fire. The baker’s hometown became the generic German term for jelly-filled doughnuts.
No, don’t even come up with John F. Kennedy, please. That is an issue of German grammar, and he never claimed to be a jelly doughnut. Instead he expressed his sympathy with the post-war population of the city of Berlin. No German ever misunderstood it; that was a legend the New York Times brought up way back when.
Do I bake Berliner during carnival? I don’t celebrate carnival, let’s keep it at that. But I made a Mardi Gras cake for my husband’s work some years ago, decorating it almost in the all the classic Mardi Gras colors. I had to use some Seahawks blue instead of the traditional purple, though, as the latter didn’t seem to be available. And I told him under which piece he’d find the little doll that goes into the cake, as seems to be tradition. So he would be able to avoid finding it and I, not an enthusiastic baker as you know by now, wouldn’t have to come up with another Carnival cake.