Why These Polish Donuts Called Paczki Are Eaten on Fat Tuesday

Sugar-dusted paczki at Firecakes Donuts in Chicago. (Photo: Instagram.com/Firecakes)

To the untrained eye, it may look like your average jelly-filled donut. But make no mistake, the sugar-dusted dough balls being consumed in Polish enclaves all over America on Fat Tuesday are actually much more toothsome and rich — and may even be spiked with booze.

Meet paczki, the Polish Mardi Gras treat designed for last hurrahs.

Born in Catholic kitchens as a way to use up the lard, sugar, eggs, and fruit historically verboten during a Lenten fast, paczki were meant to be so delicious they’d last you through 40 days of virtuous living.

Traditionally, the yeast dough is dense with flour, sugar, butter, milk, and eggs, shaped into a sphere, flattened, deep fried, and stuffed with a wide variety of fillings. It is then coated in sugar or candied citrus zest or both.

“​We’ve been making paczki since we opened our first bakery 18 years ago!” Dobra Bielinski, owner and pastry chef of Delightful Pastries in Chicago, told Yahoo Food. “​There is a huge Polish population here in Chicago that loves [them] … Culture spreads through the food in this city.”

To wit, the bakery deep fries more than 40,000 of the pastries annually, then injects them with fillings ranging from old school (rose petal jelly; plum butter) to new school (peanut butter frosting with raspberry jelly) to exquisitely sinful (vodka and vanilla bean custard, Jameson Whiskey chocolate custard, and moonshine and lemon).

The latter are what the baker dubs her “drunken paczki,” and they’re quite popular among customers.​

“​Small amounts of alcohol are often used in baked treats and pastries,” noted Bielinski. “Plus, everybody likes to get a little crazy before Lent!​”

An array of chocolate-drizzled paczki. (Photo: Delightful Pastries)

Of course, Chicago is not the only city in the U.S. with a large community of Polish-Americans.

In Detroit and Grand Rapids, Mich., “Paczki Day” is so popular that Uber offers denizens the option of ordering a dozen little gems from local purveyors, such as West Warren Bakery and Sandy’s Donuts, and having them delivered via livery service for $25 a pop.

Other bakeries in the region are counting on kooky flavor variations to lure fans out of the house and over to their shops: At New Palace Bakery, the wild card is a "pink ribbon” paczki colored bubblegum pink inside and out. Lazybones Smokehouse in Roseville, Mich., has whipped up a maple-glazed paczki coated in “pig candy bacon.” Meanwhile, Holy Cannoli in Rochester stuffs its fried paczki with the sweet mascarpone and chocolate chip filling typically reserved for Italian pastries.

And the gambit seems to be working. 

Sister Pie, a season-driven bakery on Detroit’s Kercheval Avenue, sold out of this year’s dark chocolate tahini rye, lemon rose, and “Pieraczki” (a pierogi paczki hybrid) flavors before 9:30 a.m.

But even if you don’t live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, or Buffalo’s Polonia district, both rich with Polish populations, you can still likely find one of the treats at your local bakery. So go ahead and enjoy a bite of decadence today. By tomorrow, they’ll all be gone.

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