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What Are Paczki and Why Is Everyone Freaking Out About Them?

Paczki mania is sweeping the Midwest. Here's what you need to know.

Polish paczki donuts with jelly filling on a drying rack. Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

Every year just before Mardi Gras — also known as Fat Tuesday, the day of feasting before the Christian fast known as Lent — people in the Midwest (and other parts of the country) begin clamoring for jelly doughnuts. The tradition is Polish, but it's honored in many different communities. In some neighborhoods the Thursday before Mardi Gras is Paczki Day, in others it's Fat Tuesday, but Poland's famous doughnuts can be enjoyed year-round. Here's a primer on what they are and where to find them.

What are paczki?

Paczki are Polish doughnuts. Usually full of jelly or some kind of sweet filling, they are known to draw lines around the block this time of year. 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.

They have been known to drive normally mild-mannered chefs like Top Chef winner Mei Lin (who is a Dearborn, Michigan native) into a paczki-induced social media frenzy just so she can get her hands on some.

Why is everyone freaking out about paczki?

Urban centers with large Polish and Polish-American populations like Detroit and Chicago have been bracing themselves for Fat Tuesday, aka Paczki Day, a celebration of the delectable fried treat in preparation for the coming Lenten traditions. Depending on where you are, Fat Thursday is also a time to celebrate with a hot paczki.

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 from Wikipedia, 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. But don't let that stop you — head to your favorite bakery and join the frenzy, as lines are bound to be long.

Michelle and Chris Gerard

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 handy-dandy map. If you're in Detroit, here are 17 bakeries making classic paczki plus 11 takes on the classic jelly doughnut worth tasting.