Every year, as February approaches and thoughts of Christmas are long gone, European bakeries disrupt the bleakness of midwinter with windows and display cases filled with delightfully rich sweets seldom seen the rest of the year. The tradition is a hangover from the days when the Christian festival of Lent — meant giving up all that was good, like sugar, eggs, butter, and fat, for the 40 days prior to Easter. Though that tradition may have gone the way of the Middle Ages, the urge to indulge — be it on Fat Thursday, Shrove Monday, or Mardi Gras — remains.
In England, for example, the festival of Shrove Tuesday is marked by the eating of thin pancakes made from a simple batter of flour, milk, and egg, cooked in a little butter or (in my family, at least) lard — an inherently practical way of using up leftover ingredients. Fat Tuesday in Spain typically means some combination of eggs, bread, and chorizo — or, in Catalonia, a regional sausage called botifarra. In southeastern France, the indulgence of choice is the bugne, a sweet, deep-fried relative of New Orleans’s own beignet.
In the United States, perhaps the best-known pre-Lenten delight are paczki. Born in Poland, paczki are large, filled, deep-fried yeast doughnuts, richer and denser than their American equivalents. Their dough usually contains egg yolks, vanilla, and maybe a little alcohol (which supposedly stops them from becoming greasy — or, perhaps, too greasy), while traditional fillings include rosehip jelly or plum jam. In America, Paczki Day is synonymous with Mardi Gras — Meijer sells a million paczki every year — but in Poland, the treat is most associated with Fat Thursday, six days prior to the beginning of the fast season. Poland consumes a belt-popping 100 million paczki around Fat Thursday every year, which works out to around 2.5 paczki per Pole.
Paczki are not the only pre-Lenten doughnuts popular in Europe. There’s a yeast doughnut known in western Germany and Switzerland as a Berliner; in eastern Germany, including Berlin, as pfannkuchen; and Bavaria and Austria as krapfen. It is the spherical culinary symbol of Fasching, the Germanic carnival season which stretches from 11:11 a.m. on November 11 all the way through to Mardi Gras, when the lines at bakeries festooned with colorful bunting run out the door with people collecting boxes of krapfen to take to their families, school, or places of work.
Holidays like Fat Thursday or Mardi Gras have turned the doughnut into a festive tradition, but it was a dish originally born out of necessity. In Austria, for example, the precursor to the modern-day krapfen is something called a bauernkrapfen or farmer’s doughnut. Compared to a regular doughnut, a bauernkrapfen is wider and has a concave shape. Instead of being filled, the filling sits within the crater at the doughnut’s center. Think of it as an open-faced doughnut. Once a simple peasant dish eaten to keep farmers full during leaner months, the bauernkrapfen has become a messy staple at Germanic Christmas markets, whether topped with an apple-cinnamon or jelly filling.
Paczki versus Krapfen
While krapfen and paczki might look alike at a quick glance, they are not the same beast. Paczki are fried for a longer amount of time than Krapfen, so while each is golden on the top and bottom from contact with the hot oil and ringed with a paler band around the center, paczki are typically darker, with a more distinct crust. In my experience, paczki also tend to be slightly larger than krapfen, and maybe a bit more bread-like. Paczki are often coated, top and bottom, with powdered sugar, and they also come glazed or iced. Krapfen typically have sugar only on top, yet are somehow sweeter. Finally, the go-to krapfen filling is apricot marmalade, though vanilla custard or Nutella are also common.
Paczki and krapfen have many cousins across central and eastern Europe — the Hungarian fank, Croatian krofne, Slovenian krofi, Bulgarian ponichka — and finding their precise respective origins is nigh-on impossible. Was this dish really born in Vienna when Cäcilie Krapf, a cook in the Habsburg royal court at the end of the 17th century, threw a ball of dough in a fit of rage at her husband (or perhaps a male underling) which, missing its target, ended up landing in a pan of boiling hot fat? Or was it created by a grateful, overawed baker in Berlin as a cannonball-shaped tribute to Frederick the Great of Prussia? What can be said is that the popularity of paczki and krapfen took off in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly among high society, as an endnote to many a ball or country house party.
If the doughnut, be it krapfen or paczki, is synonymous with Fat Thursday and Mardi Gras in central and eastern Europe, the peoples of Scandinavia hew to a different but similarly motivated tradition of eating semlor, as the Swedish call them, on Mardi Gras. While the former are deep-fried, a semla (singular) is a small, baked yeast bun enriched with butter and egg and flavored with cardamom. After it has been allowed to cool, the top of the bun is cut off and the inside hollowed out before being filled with an almond paste and then whipped cream. The hat is placed back on the filled roll before the whole thing is dusted with powdered sugar and served, ideally, with a cup of coffee.
Originally, semlor (or fastlagsbullar) were simply bread rolls (the word semla deriving from the German Semmel) floating in warm milk, a dish known as hetvagg that once claimed the life of the Swedish king. On February 12, 1771, Adolf Frederick capped an already-rich and boozy meal with 14 servings of hetvagg, after which, already battling digestive issues, he promptly died. It was around 100 years ago or so that the semla evolved to its present form with almond paste and whipped cream.
Mercifully, Adolf Frederick’s example is not one to follow, and the average Swede today only eats around five bakery- or store-bought semlor a year. In the Swedish capital, Stockholm, the legendary coffeehouse Vete-Katten sells around 14,000 of these cream-filled, cardamom-scented buns every Mardi Gras. Regional variations include Finnish laskiaispulla and Danish and Norwegian fastelavnsboller, which contain jam in lieu of the almond paste in addition to the whipped cream. In the Danish case, they often come festively iced too. Neatly, semlor can be served on a plate and eaten with a fork and spoon; more realistically, they can be eaten like krapfen or paczki, which is to say, messily and greedily with one’s hands. The European attachment to Lent itself may have weakened, but let me assure you, the urge to indulge in the days prior with doughnuts, beignets, and cream buns has not.
Liam Hoare is Europe editor for Moment Magazine based in Vienna, Austria, where he also writes the Vienna Briefing newsletter.