This is going to be a longish post because it’s about food, and I am Polish, and Polish people do not mess around when it comes to food. We know that butter makes it better and the flavor’s in the fat. Case in point: Pączki (POONCH-key), heavy balls of delightfully rich, deep-fried egg dough filled with fruit or custard, traditionally made in the weeks leading up to Lent.
Pączki originated as the answer to the question, “Whatever shall we do with all the sugar, eggs and fruit in the house, for alas, we cannot have any of that yummy stuff between Ash Wednesday and Easter.” If you happen to live in Detroit, or any another heavily Polish area, you can probably find them in grocery stores, though I have it on good authority that those are really just larger versions of ordinary jelly donuts and therefore not worth eating. According to one of my cousins, the time-honored practice of frying pączki in lard imparts “a crisp outer texture with a cakey interior until you get to the filling goodness.” (She is an engineer, and as you can see, her precision extends to food.)
I was born in Motown, and my family lived for a time in Hamtramck, the originally German, then heavily Polish, and now amazingly ethnically diverse community north of downtown Detroit. But since my family moved to another state before I was two, and my husband Mowgli (not his real name) did his graduate work at Wayne State University, he has waited for pączki, whereas I, an actual Detroit Pole, am sad to say I have not.
That’s right, I said, “waited for pączki.” The lure of tradition and confection is such that people wait as long as 24 hours, in the middle of winter, in numbers topping out in the thousands in some communities. Hamtramck holds an annual Countdown to Pączki Day, which involves a pączki cook-off, a pączki toss game (oh, the humanity!), polka music, a bus tour of participating bakeries, and wonder of wonders, free pączki. I'm already hatching a plot to drive up for that next year; it’s only nine hours away, and I’d really like to add that T-shirt to my collection.
A few days ago, I put out a call for pączki memories, and my family responded with food-fueled passion. The funniest item is this: One of my cousins ate 12 pąckzi in one day when he was a junior in high school. He chose his time well; young arteries can handle that kind of assault.
An aunt who now lives in northern Michigan and raised 10 kids still makes them from scratch after starting the tradition 5 or 6 years into her marriage. “I found a Pączki recipe in the Detroit News. From then on, we made Pączki every year without fail - we double the recipe (with so many famished young 'uns, it was a must), so we usually made about 100! Hubby kneaded the dough, someone cut it into rounds, someone fried all 100 (tho we took turns as that is an onerous job). When cooled, someone slit a small opening and someone stuffed it with apricot, raspberry, grape jam. Powdered sugar was lavishly sprinkled on each yummy just before serving.
“Hubby and I still make them. I do manage to freeze as many as I can squirrel away, so that we can serve them to whoever comes up that spring. They go fast. Last year, we didn't fill them until just before we enjoyed munching them. Saved us mucho time! (Never too old to learn new tricks!)”
This is from my mother, who is the oldest of nine: “In my very Polish family, Pączki Day was on the many Saturdays my mother went to Hamtramck to the Polish bakery for fresh bread – rye and/or pumpernickel (dependent upon availability) – just out of the oven. When she was early enough (pączki sold quickly in a Polish bakery back in the day), had enough spare cash (needed at least a dozen for her brood) or the spirit moved her, we were the lucky recipients of the best pączki ever – jelly were our favorite (raspberry, as I recall).
"The last time I had any of those carb-filled, lard-fried delights that came even close to arousing my taste buds’ memories from my childhood was at a Polish bakery in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. My niece took me there (we liked the ones filled with the prune jam [powidła]), a Polish classic.”
Incidentally, pączkis were traditionally eaten on Fat Thursday, the last Thursday before Lent, but the main day of consumption was shifted with the American influence of Fat Tuesday. This does not, however, stop bakeries, churches and grocery stores from supplying them in the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras.
I'll end with some pączki trivia: they go by different names in different countries: gogoşi (Romania); pirashki (Iran); ponchiki (Russia); pampushky (Ukraine); Berliners (Germany and Denmark); bola de berlin (Mexico); krapfen (Austria); spurges (Lithuania); malasada (Portugal); sonho (Brazil); fank (Hungary); and bombolini (Italy).
Ah, just one last thing. If you're local to me, you can find decent ones here, though I doubt they fry them in lard. Pity.