Fat Tuesday is upon us.
I have just the thing. Donuts. Special donuts. Pączki. Have you heard of them?
Pączki (pronounced POHNCH-kee, singular paczek) are fried rounds of yeast dough traditionally filled with rosehip or prune jam. However, unlike your corner Dunkin sour cream glazed variety (the best kind, IMO), these Polish delicacies come around only once a year, a tradition that, according to Joseph Zurawski, author of Polish Chicago: Our History, Our Recipes, dates back to the 1600s.
Poland, notably Roman Catholic, each year marks the zapusty- the last six days of carnival season before Lent-by making pączki on Fat Thursday (Tłusty Czwartek). This gives families from Thursday until Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, to use up all the good things from their pantries (i.e. butter, sugar, eggs and lard) before the church-sanctioned forty-day fast begins on Ash Wednesday. In fact, an old Polish proverb states, "If you don't eat at least one donut on Shrove Thursday, you will no longer be successful in life.”
While much of the United States acknowledges only Fat Tuesday, Chicago, which boasts the largest Polish population of any city in the U.S., gets to double dip on the tradition. These carnival favorites are available on both Fat Thursday and Fat Tuesday and, if you’re lucky enough to find them, the days in between.
But what makes pączki different from a regular jelly donut? The secret is in the dough; pączki dough is extremely rich and buttery, made with egg yolks, lard and cream, making these little packages a substantial punch than a normal donut. Depending on the size and filling, one paczek can have 500 calories!
Pączki’s popularity tends to be localized in the Midwestern United States where there tends to be a large population of Polish immigrants. In my own experience, I’d never even heard of pączki until I moved to the Midwest from Florida in high school. But pączki is a delicacy that young ones here in Chicago, Polish or not, have come to expect once a year in the same way they look forward to a candy at Halloween or a basket of chocolate eggs on Easter Sunday.
Luckily, I have a pretty extensive network of Polish friends, all of whom have Polish grandmas and one of them was nice enough to share her recipe for paczki. The hard part about time-honored recipes is that they’re not often written down. You know how grandmas cook- a bit of this, a bit of that- and so when it comes time to pass down these recipes to eager, foodie-minded grandchildren, it becomes difficult. So, a big thanks to Grandma Janina Topor, a first-generation Polish immigrant and a Chicago resident, for writing her family’s recipe down in painstaking detail for this non-proficient pastry putz to recreate.
Grandma Janina is a first-generation immigrant in the U.S. and a mother of four. Whether it’s for her children, grandchildren, or friends, she takes pride in Polish cooking and baking. She uses only the best, freshest ingredients. Finding the right ingredients for Polish dishes and desserts has been a challenge in her new homeland, but it has not taken away from the pleasure she takes in cooking complex Polish meals consisting of multiple courses and baking the most delicious Polish cakes and cookies, often happily committing sleepless nights to her carefully crafted, tasty creations. Janina’s recent move to Chicago, with its abundance of Polish grocery stores, makes finding Polish cooking and baking ingredients much easier.
Grandma Janina grew up at the foot of the Tatra Mountains in the south of Poland, and her mother Ludwika would pull baking sheets full of sweet deliciousness out of her fire-wood oven every holiday and carnival season, using recipes stored only in her head. She had never seen her follow a written recipe list or a cookbook and is thankful she got watch her mother and learn her authentic, remarkable baking skills so that she can now spoil her family and friends with home-made delicacies of her own.
Grandma Janina hopes her pączki will be enjoyed -smacznego!
If you aren’t up for the task of making these goodies yourself, you can get your fix at the following locations around Chicago:
- Oak Mill Bakery, various locations
- Delightful Pastries, Chicago French Market, Old Town, Jefferson Park
- Dinkel’s Bakery, Lakeview
- Alliance Bakery, West Town
- Bennison’s Bakery, Evanston
- Swedish Bakery, Andersonville
- Ingram’s Busy Bee Bakery, Downer’s Grove
Grandma Janina's Pączki
Makes about 40 pączki.
- 1 kg ( 7 cups) Gold Medal All-Purpose Flour
- 100 g (a little less than 2-2oz block) fresh yeast – make sure to leave yeast out of the fridge 30 minutes before baking to reach room temperature
- 12 oz margarine (real margarine used for baking purposes; suggested brand Kasia)
- 200 g (3/4 cup) sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 8 egg yolks
- 150 mL (1 ¼ cups) milk, room temperature
- 1 shot rectified spirits e.g. Everclear
- 1 large jar mixed fruit or rose petal thick-cut marmalade
- Oil for deep frying (vegetable/olive)
- Powdered Sugar for Sprinkling on Top
- Begin by preparing a fresh yeast paste. Place the yeast in a small bowl, large mug or a measuring cup and crumble it into small pieces. Add 1 tablespoon of sugar, 3 tablespoons of flour, and a little bit of milk – just enough to make the ingredients mix easily. Mix all ingredients into a mid-thick paste resembling the texture of sour cream. Place the cup with the ready fresh yeast paste in a warm place (near a heated stove or oven, etc.) and leave it there to rise.
- In the meantime, place the margarine in a small pan over low heat and let it melt slowly until completely liquid form.
- Place the remaining flour in a large mixing bowl and mix with the ½ teaspoon of salt. Set aside.
- Place egg yolks and the remaining sugar in another mixing bowl. Whisk the two ingredients together into a smooth mixture.
- Once the fresh yeast paste has risen to about twice its original level, add it to the flour mix. Add the egg/sugar mixture and the remaining milk. Start kneading the dough. When kneading, make sure to pull the dough up high so that it gets a good stretch and air can pass through it. Knead well and long enough for it to become fluffy! Three quarters into the kneading process, add the melted margarine - keep kneading! Shortly after, add the shot glass of rectified spirit and keep kneading until you are finished. A sign of a kneading job-well-done is that the dough will easily separate from your hands and fingers. When perfectly fluffy, place the dough in a large bowl, cover it with a kitchen towel (cotton will be best since it’ll let air pass through easily), and set it to rise in a warm temperature (near a heated stove or oven, etc.) – the dough will be twice its original size when ready.
- Place oil in a large pot – make sure about ¾ of the pot is filled up – and start heating it very slowly.
- When the dough is ready, separate it into two equal parts. Use a dough roller or rolling pin to roll one part into large a 1 cm (~0.4 in) thick piece. Make sure to spread a very thin layer of flour on the rolling table so that the dough does not stick to the bottom.
- Cut marmalade into 1x1 in cubes and place them throughout the rolled out piece of dough, spacing them about 1 in from each other all around.
- Roll out the other portion of dough into a 1 cm (~0.4 in) thick piece of the same size as the first one. Place this rolled out piece of dough on top of the spread marmalade pieces.
- Take medium size round glass (about 3 in in circumference) and start cutting out circles evenly around the marmalade cubes.
- Cover a separate counter/table with a thin layer of flour. Take the donuts, as you continue to cut them out of the dough with a glass, and place them on the prepared counter to rise – they should gain about twice their height. Once the doughnuts have risen, you are ready to place them in the pot with oil.
- Grandma’s trick to check on oil – take a slice of a raw potato and put it in the oil. If it starts browning right away, you are ready to deep fry the donuts! Before you place the doughnuts in the pot, make sure you clean the flour off of them as much as possible!
- Place the doughnuts into the pot upside down – the risen, top part should become the bottom in the pot to give the other side room and time to rise! When the bottom part browns nicely, turn the dounuts over to allow the other side to brown.
- When both sides are nicely browned, take the doughnuts out on to a paper towel to let them dry off from oil.
- Place on a serving plate and sprinkle powdered sugar on top!
Chrissy Barua lives in Lincoln Park and successfully lawyers by day despite an addiction to bad movies, cookies, and travel. She'll be bringing you monthly doses of delicious as she tries to track down the best grandma recipes she can find. (Follow her on her other cooking adventures at The Hungary Buddha Eats the World.)