Despite the fact that we don’t do the twelve-course Christmas dinner, I grew up in a Polish house. We may not have spoken Polish, but I knew all about babushkas, pierogi, and St. Joseph. Perhaps most importantly, I knew all about pączki.
Every year on Fat Tuesday, my dad would head over to the Polish bakery, pick up a dozen pączki, and bring them home before heading off to work so that my mother, brother, and I could have a pączek (pohn-chek; singular of pączki) for breakfast – yes, we were spoiled Polish-American children. This was the highlight of the day, let me tell you. Nothing beats a good old pączek and a glass of milk in the morning – except, maybe, a pączek and a cup of coffee (for us older kids). Generally speaking, this is the only day of the year that it’s acceptable to eat large amounts of thousand-calorie pastries, so it’s kind of like an extra Christmas for us Polish kids.
For those of you who don’t know what pączki (pohnch-kee) are, I’m so very sorry for you. You’ve been deprived. Get thee to a Polish bakery before they close today and pick up a dozen. Pączki are the Polish version of a jelly doughnut, only so much better. Basically, a pączek is a heart attack waiting to happen. Making pączki was the way that the Polish people used up all the remaining forbidden foods before Lent started: eggs, lard, fruits, sugar, basically anything rich or that might tempt a body into neglecting fasting regulations. (For anyone who is unfamiliar with Lent or why it’s important for Catholics, check out this website: http://www.catholic.org/clife/lent/faq.php)
In most Catholic cultures, the impending penance that is Lent was preceded by a season of parties and merrymaking. Think Carnival in Brazil, Carnival in Venice, pretty much anything called Carnival, heck, even Mardi Gras in New Orleans has its roots in the Catholic tradition of fasting during the forty days of Lent. It was one last hurrah and one really good excuse to throw one really good party. All of these festival seasons culminate in Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, celebrations, the day before Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent). Poland is no different.
In Poland, the traditional Karnawał (karn-ah-vaw; Polish for Carnival) parties happen between the last Thursday before Ash Wednesday and Ash Wednesday. This Thursday is known as Tłusty Czwartek (twoo-stay ch-var-tek), or Fat Thursday, and it’s the day that the pączki come out.
Here in Poland, you can get pączki every day, just like you can get doughnuts in the States. However, I have never seen pączki in such quantities as I did on Fat Thursday in Żory. The bakery across the street from me literally was only selling pączki that day. I went to a staff meeting, and there were pączki on the table. I went to gas up the car, and there were pączki at the register in the gas station. It was like a tasty, tasty invasion of little round sweet breads. I was one happy camper.
I should mention that, being in their natural habitat, the pączki in Poland are far more delicious than any pączki I’ve had in the States. That’s not to say that American pączki are bad, it’s just to say that the Polish people in Poland have had far more practice with these little guys. This is because in the United States, pączki are only really sold in any real quantity one day out of the year. Furthermore, if you don’t know any Polish people or live in a place like Hamtramck or Chicago, then you have no earthly idea what a pączek is.
Now, to the important details. Pączki are traditionally made with eggy dough, which is then filled with jam, fried, and topped with icing. In Poland, the traditional filling is rose marmalade, but other types of marmalade are available also. I had a (few) strawberry-filled pączki, and they were delicious. It’s also possible to find pączki topped with powdered sugar, but judging by the options at the bakery I went to, the icing-topped ones are more popular. There was even an option for more or less filling, but the lady in the bakery told me I didn’t want the ones with less filling inside (I buy pastries from this lady fairly regularly; she knows my tastes well). I know that in American Polish bakeries, you can find custard-filled pączki, which were always my favorite, but I didn’t see any here in Poland. All of the varieties I encountered had a fruit filling and a simple sugar icing. And man, were they delicious.
At any rate, it’s Fat Tuesday – Pączki Day if you live with Polish people. I repeat, get thee to a Polish bakery. If you’re not drooling yet, you will be when you’re eyeing the freshly-made, icing-topped, delectable little bundles of goodness at the bakery counter.
Looking for some tasty treats? Go to the places where they have Polish people. There you will find delicious pączki.