For many Protestants, Mardi Gras is known as Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, the official beginning of Lent. As a solemn religious period, Lent traditionally incorporates periods of fasting during its 40 days. The Shrove Tuesday tradition of pancake-making, therefore, was an easy way for households to get rid of their dairy and sugar before fasting began. Today, pancake races are commonly held throughout England in celebration of the holiday.
Russia takes the Protestant pancake tradition and puts its own spin on it. The Orthodox festival of Maslenitsa is characterized by the eating of blini, a cake more similar to crêpes than American pancakes. Their utility is even more useful than pancakes—they can be stuff with meat, fish, or cream, using up even more off-limits ingredients than their U.K. counterparts. For a full week before Lent, folk festivals create numerous variations to be eaten by thousands of hungry Russian customers.
Fastelavn is the Luthern term for the Carnival season. The season focuses mostly on parades and children's activities, but there's one activity that Danes of all ages can participate in: the eating of Fastelavnsboller. These puffy sweet buns are either coated in icing or sliced opened and filled with cream. You can't enter a Danish bakery between Christmas and Easter without catching a glimpse of these tasty treats.
With all the dancing involved in Brazil's Carnival celebrations, it's no wonder that participants would need a hearty meal to gain back their energy. Feijoada, a thick stew of meat (usually beef or pork) and beans, is the national dish of Brazil and is eaten all throughout the year. What makes it especially popular during the Carnival season is that the Lenten ban on meat means this is the last chance Brazilians will have to feast on their favorite dish until Easter.
Venice's unique Carnival also has unique doughnuts. These fried pastries can be plain, stuffed with cream or hazelnut chocolate fillings, or even baked with nuts or fruit incorporated into the batter. Visitors better get them while they can; once the season is over, these tasty treats won't reappear until next Carnival.
Also known as "angel wings," this fried concoction is similar to funnel cake, though these strips of dough are not interconnected. Popularized in Lyon, the original bugnes actually have their roots within the season of Lent as a way to make "treats" during the fasting period. These older recipes (consisting of only flour, salt, and water) have given way to the more popular sweet treats that are commonly found today during Carnival.
Most popular along the Gulf Coast of the United States, king cake traces its history back to French cakes celebrating Epiphany, the arrival of the 3 wise men visiting the baby Jesus. The American Mardi Gras version is traditionally a light, crusty roll covered in purple, green, and gold frosting while being stuffed with cream cheese or cinnamon filling. The lucky person who finds a small baby figurine in his or her slice of cake is then responsible for bringing the next king cake.
Unlike the other foods on this list, oranges aren't necessarily chosen for their tasty appeal. The large carnival celebrations in the city of Binche, Belgium, feature Gilles, men with extravagantly plumed hats who wander the streets and throw oranges, symbolizing good luck, into the crowd. Practice your hand-eye coordination before you go, and keep your head up. These throws are a bit more painful than beads.
The Polish tradition of Paczki Day is celebrated on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday. Similar to a dense jelly doughnut, these Polish pastries are filled with fruit filling and are a way of using up the dairy and sugar before the arrival of Lent. Americans can get their paczki fix in the heavily Polish communities around Detroit and Chicago. Lines of people, hoping to grab one or two of these rich concoctions, stretch for blocks around small bakeries.
By far, Malta has the best Carnival dessert. Basically, every amazingly sweet treat is compiled into a single cake: sponge, cream, chocolate, pine nuts, cherries, condensed milk, and citrus zest. There's even an adult version made with vermouth. If the normal size is too decadent for you, try a personal-sized dome of sugary goodness.
(image via charleneb96)