My Citizens, few things delight the palate of your supreme Suzerain – the sucrose-loving TFD! – more than a good sugary jelly donut fried in lard and dripping equally with history and jam!
This recipe from Poland absolutely fits the bill at every level! I first learned about this dessert from the amazing food newsletter Gastro Obscura, and I will now share my version of this treat with you! It’s especially apropos given that Fat Tuesday is rapidly approaching, which is the traditional time of year to eat these.
As noted on Gastro Obscura:
The clock counts down as the crowd goes wild. A row of competitors push toward the finish line. It’s not a bike race or a 5k. It’s a pączki-eating contest. Every Mardi Gras, from Tappan, New York, to Hamtramck, Michigan, these fried, sugar-dusted fluffs of pastry have become an occasion for celebrating pre-Lent excess, Polish culture, and of course, gastronomic athleticism.
Golden-brown with a characteristic light ring around the middle, these yeast-risen doughnuts are deep fried and covered with powdered sugar or fried orange zest. They were first made by Polish people using up the last of the sugar, lard, and fruit in the house before the austerity of Lent.
In Poland, they’re filled with rose petal, prune jam, and even fried rose buds, and are eaten on Fat Thursday (the Thursday before Lent) as part of the zapusty, or “carnival season.” These pre-Lent festivities continue to the present day, and bakeries making pączki are known to be the site of hours-long lines on Fat Thursday.
Pączki immigrated to the United States alongside their Polish creators and became ubiquitous in Polish communities on the Eastern seaboard and in the Midwest. In the United States, they’re eaten on Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), the day before Lent begins.
While some pączki are filled with the traditional rose and prune, they’ve also become a vehicle for more inventive fillings, ranging from banana cream to charred rosemary. To be clear, TFD considers these to be abominations.
They’ve also become a vehicle for some serious celebration. Fat Tuesday has officially been dubbed “Pączki Day” in Hamtramck and Chicago. Celebrations in Hamtramck include beer, music, dancing mascots in Pączki costumes, and of course, the annual pączki-eating contest. Meanwhile, Chicago bakers estimate that they sell tens of thousands of the fried treat each day between Fat Thursday and Fat Tuesday every year.
While your average Chicagoan has no problem eating a pączki or 12, they disagree on how exactly to pronounce the beguiling bread’s name. For the record, pączki is the plural form of the singular, pączek, and the proper pronunciation is “pownch-key,” though “delicious” works just fine.
Pączki have been known in Poland at least since the Middle Ages. Jędrzej Kitowicz has described that during the reign of August III, under the influence of French cooks who came to Poland, pączki dough was improved, so that pączki became lighter, spongier, and more resilient.
The Polish word pączek is a diminutive of the Polish word pąk “bud”. The latter derives from Proto-Slavic *pǫkъ, which may have referred to anything that is round, bulging and about to burst (compare Proto-Slavic *pǫkti “to swell, burst”), possibly of ultimately onomatopoeic origin.
From Polish, the word has been borrowed into several other Slavic languages, where the respective loanwords (ponchik[a], ponchyk[b] or ponichka[c]) refer to a similar ball-shaped pastry.
As further elucidated in the Polish-American Journal (published since 1911!):
While the practice of Pączki Day is traditionally observed the day before Ash Wednesday in the United States, in Poland, pączki sales are the highest on Tlusty Czwartek, or “Fat Thursday.” (The Thursday before Ash Wednesday). This day marks the start of the final week of the pre-Lenten celebrations.
In Old Poland, the zapusty or “carnival season” reached its height during this period. Elegant balls were held in well-to-do manor houses, attended by young men, women and their parents. Country-folk, on the other hand, would make merry, drink, dance and flirt at the village inn.
The rich would feast on fancy hors d’oeuvres, roast game, and fine wines. Peasants enjoyed their zimne noge (jellied pig’s knuckles), kiszka (blood and groat sausage), and kielbasa z kapusta (sausage and cabbage), which they washed down with beer and gorzalka, the least expensive vodka available.
Common to both groups, however, were pączki, which were consumed in huge quantities.
Citizens, the dough part of this recipe is from the Polish Heritage Cookery book, but I’ve used my own rose jam filling that also includes a goodly hit of Wiśniówka, a sweet Polish liqueur, or cordial, made by macerating (soaking) cherries in vodka or neutral spirits. Typically, the alcoholic content ranges from 30% to 50%. It is drunk from a shot glass and said to help boost the immune system.
Instead of using the traditional fried orange peel to the donuts as a garnish, I’ve updated the recipe to instead use microplaned fresh orange zest mixed with the granulated sugar that coats the donuts for a more substantive hit of orange flavor.
Battle on – The Generalissimo