My Mother’s Carnival Doughnuts

“Everything being a constant carnival, there is no carnival left.” Victor Hugo

Many cultures around the world have festivals in relation to the carnival season and also many festivals have their rendition of fried dough. The Italians celebrate with frittelle, Mexicans make long, skinny churros, and the French eat beignets. Funnel cakes are the American version of this simple but tasty tradition. The Hungarian  traditional sweet, called Carnival Doughnut is a cross-cultural delight accented by the aromatic flavors of rum sometimes lemon zest. Traditional doughnuts are still readily found at most markets. The soft, yeasted batter is baked directly in hot oil, making crispy, delicate rings of sweet, perfumed dough.It is the traditional sweet treat of the carnival season’s last day, called “Meat Leaving Tuesday” in Hungary, that celebrated the festive season with a luxurious dinner and fat-rich afters, filling people up before the preparation for Easter.


Mardi Gras, literally meaning “Fat Tuesday,” has grown in popularity as an often hedonistic event, however its roots lie in the Christian calendar, as the last celebration before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.  What is less known about Mardi Gras is its relation to the Christmas season, through the ordinary-time interlude known in many Catholic cultures as Carnival.  Carnival comes from the Latin words carne vale, meaning “farewell to the flesh.” Like many Catholic holidays and seasonal celebrations, it likely has its roots in pre-Christian traditions based on the seasons. Some believe the festival represented the few days added to the lunar calendar to make it coincide with the solar calendar; since these days were outside the calendar, rules and customs were not obeyed. Others see it as a late-winter celebration designed to welcome the coming spring. As early as the middle of the second century, the Romans observed a Fast of 40 Days, which was preceded by a brief season of feasting, costumes and merrymaking.


The Busójárás (Hungarian, meaning “Busó-walking”) is an annual celebration of the people living in the town of Mohács, Hungary, held at the end of the Carnival season (“Farsang”). The celebration features Busós (people wearing traditional masks) and includes folk music, masquerading, parades and dancing. Busójárás lasts for six days, usually during February. It starts on a Thursday, followed by the Kisfarsang (Little Carnival) on Friday, with the biggest celebration, Farsang Vasárnap (Farsang Sunday) on the seventh Sunday before Easter Sunday. The celebration then ends with Farsangtemetés (Burial of Celebration) on the following Tuesday (Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras). Locals explain the Carnival with two similar but different legends.


According to the more popular legend, during the Turkish occupation of the territory the people of Mohács fled the town, and lived in the nearby swamps and woods to avoid Ottoman (Turkish) troops. One night, while they were sitting and talking around the fire, an old man appeared suddenly from nowhere, and said to them, “Don’t be afraid: your lives will soon turn to good, and you’ll return to your homes. Against that time, prepare for the battle, carve various weapons and scary masks for yourselves, and wait for a stormy night when a masked knight will come to you.” They dressed in disguise and scary masks and returned across the river, raiding the superstitious Turks who panicked and fled the town as soon as they saw the masked men. The celebration is also believed to have a purpose of chasing the bad spirits away for people to renew and refresh for the year ahead. People still keep the tradition of dressing up in scary outfits and visiting each other’s homes where they are often offered fresh carnival doughnuts and homemade jam.


My grandmother was a real expert in doughnut making and my mother has certainly inherited her skills. The recipe is our family treasure and always results deliciously puffed, light pastry with a perfect white ring on its side.

Ingredients (makes 30 doughnuts) 
500 g flour
20 g fresh yeast
50 g powdered sugar
50 g butter
2 egg yolks
1 shot of rum
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tbs palinka (Hungarian spirit drink)
A pinch of salt
500 ml milk
1 liter oil or fat for deep frying


Mix yeast, 1 teaspoon of sugar and 3 tablespoon of flour in lukewarm milk. Beat the egg yolks with the rum and the remaining sugar, and then add to the ready yeast mixture. Stir well. Add the melted butter, flour, zest and enough salted milk to make soft dough. Beat well with wooden spoon for about 20-30 minutes. When dough is ready, it forms a ball and starts to have bubbles inside. Sprinkle with flour, cover, and let rise in a warm place for about 1 hour, until light and doubled in size. On a floured surface, roll out the dough to 3 cm thickness, turning dough occasionally, to make sure it does not stick to the board. Using a palm-sized cookie cutter or a glass, cut as many rounds as possible. Place on a floured cookie sheet, cover with a cloth, and let rise in a warm place for about 30 minutes, until light and almost doubled in size. Heat the oil in a saucepan. Test the heat of the oil by dipping a bit of dough in the pan. When the oil is hot enough, it bubbles as the piece of dough starts frying. Press a dent in the middle of each doughnut, and fry them for 1-2 minutes on each side, until golden brown. Make sure to start frying them upside down (they go in the oil with their dented side down), and cover the pot. There is no need to cover after turned to fry the other side. Drain fried doughnuts on paper towels. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and/or serve with apricot jam . It is also possible to bake them in the oven to create a sweet, soft tea party bread roll.


“There is no prettier fall then carnival.” Toon Hermans 

7 thoughts on “My Mother’s Carnival Doughnuts

  1. Pingback: Celebrating a Traditional Shrove: Oven Baked Chips | When Judit bakes...bread and better..

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