All about paczki: The Polish jelly donut that ate the Midwest

Feb 21, 2012

The day before Ash Wednesday has many names — Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras. Shrove Tuesday.

But all over the Midwest, it’s become known as Paczki Day.

From Green Bay, Wis., to Lorain, Ohio, from Calumet City, Ind., to Hamtramck, Mich., people are snapping up the jelly donuts that have their roots in Polish cuisine.

One Chicago bakery alone expects to sell 80,000 paczkis, so we’re going to go out on a limb and predict there may be millions sold in the Midwest on Tuesday.

Changing Gears has been taking a look at immigrant traditions and culture across the Midwest, but the paczki seems to have transcended its beginnings and become a pre-Lenten staple.

Originally, the paczki (pronounced poohnch-KEY) was meant to use up the last of a Roman Catholic household’s fat and sugar before the Lenten fast began the next day.

Small ethnic bakeries used to be the only place that carried them. (When I was growing up in Michigan, you had to know somebody who could bring them over from Hamtramck, the Polish enclave that borders Detroit.)

Now, they’ve gone mainstream, available not just at bakeries but at supermarkets in every corner of our region, whether the area has a Polish population or not.

In their original form, a paczki was essentially the same size as a jelly donut, although heavier, since it is fried longer. Oak Mill Bakery, which has six outlets in Chicago, uses a combination of butter, lard and margarine in its paczkis.

These days, some paczkis, like those made by the Manchester Bakery in Manchester, Mich., are as big as softballs, and dusted with powdered sugar. Although fruit fillings are the most authentic, we’ve heard of cheese-filled, rose-petal, chocolate and even bacon ones (anybody know where we can find a Nutella paczki?)

Fleckenstein’s Bakery in Moline, Ill., hedges its bets by offering both pastries that are popular on Fat Tuesday — paczkis and King Cake, a specialty that’s widely eaten in New Orleans. And some bakeries even are offering what they call “gourmet paczkis,” split open to reveal a layer of cream filling. (To us, they look a lot like Whoopie Pies.)

Paczki have become a subject of celebration in a number of our Midwest communities. Here’s a sample:

  • Last Saturday, St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in Calumet City held its 40th annual Paczki Dance. There were hundreds of paczki on hand, with the proceeds going to help the church fund its $1.1 million, three-year restoration campaign.
  • Kiedrowski’s Simply Delicious Bakery in Amherst, Ohio, put on its annual Paczki Ball this past Sunday. There was polka, a raffle and the annual “presentation of the Paczki.” This year’s event drew 550 people. Owner Tim Kiedrowski launched the ball, which he likens to a Polish wedding, in order to celebrate his roots.
  • Activities are planned all over Hamtramck on Tuesday, with specials and paczki at many bars and restaurants, but the celebration kicked off on Saturday with a pre-party called Countdown to Paczki Day.

But don’t think paczkis are just a pre-Lenten specialty. You can often find them throughout the year in the bakery section at Bobak’s on Archer Avenue in Chicago.

What’s your favorite paczki? Where do you buy them?