The days before the Christian fast of Lent are known by many names. Mardi Gras season, Carnival, Shrovetide. These are days to eat and drink richly, before 40 days of fasting in anticipation of Easter. But in much of the midwest, the season all leads up to Paczki Day. Paczki are a Polish tradition, but they’ve become a beloved culinary tradition in many communities. Here's a primer on what they are and where to find them.
What are paczki?
Paczki are essentially Polish doughnuts, though denser and richer than your typical American yeasted doughnut. Traditional fillings include rosehip jelly or plum jam, but now they can be found filled with a variety of jams and sweet creams. The recipe is similar to German, Jewish, and Italian filled doughnuts, but traditional paczki contain a splash of Polish vodka called Spiritus in addition to the flour, eggs, milk, sugar, yeast, and sometimes butter that make up the dough.
There are many myths as to where paczki originated. One says Cäcilie Krapf, a cook in the Habsburg royal court at the end of the 17th century, threw a ball of dough at her husband and it landed in a pot of boiling oil instead. But these and similar treats have long been carnival and other festive period traditions, likely because, like with the making of pancakes in England or king cake in New Orleans, paczki are meant to use up remaining eggs, milk and fruit in the house before the fast of Lent (the fasting rules used to be a lot more hardcore).
Why are they only common in some parts of the U.S.?
The 19th century saw the great Emigration of Polish and Lithuanian people, many political elites, to America after the failure of the November Uprising against the Russian Empire. Some of the earliest settlements were in Texas, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Chicago. During the Franco-Prussian war, there was a bigger wave of Polish immigration, with both Polish Jews and Catholics settling where Polish emigrants had already established themselves, as well as in the port of Baltimore, Buffalo, New York, and parts of New York City and New Jersey.
It’s still in these urban centers with large Polish-Catholic populations like Buffalo, Detroit, and Chicago that you can find Paczki Day celebrations, some of which are the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, but most of which are held on Fat Tuesday. Either way, you’ll find lines for paczki at Polish bakeries and donut shops can stretch down the block.
How do you pronounce the word “paczki” so you don’t sound like a total amerykanski when you’re ordering one at a bakery?
The pronunciation has been subject to some debate, with most people weighing in on the side of "POONCH-key." Listening to this sound bite, it would seem to lean a bit more toward "POUNCH-key" or "PAUNCH-key," but chances are, unless you speak the language, you'll end up butchering it. Don't let that stop you from trying! Also note that “paczki” is already plural— if you’re ordering just one, it’s “paczek.” But why would you be ordering just one?
Where can you taste paczki?
Unless you're in the Midwest, certain parts of the South, and parts of the Northeast, you might be out of luck. Chicagoans can refer to this map. If you're in Detroit, here are 15 bakeries making classic and modern takes on paczki. And there are plenty of options in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. You can also get them shipped to you, if you don’t happen to live in a place where they’re plentiful.
Should I try making them?
Obviously families have been making paczki at home for generations. Recipes involve frying the yeasted dough in oil, and filling with jam or custard. Though if you’re getting really traditional, they should be fried in lard (again, to use up before Lent).