For Polish-Americans, the Tuesday before Lent isn’t about beads, king cake or Carnival parades, it’s all about pączki.
Pączki, or pączek singular, are a traditional Polish doughnut made from an enriched yeast dough that is deep-fried, filled with fruit, jam or custard and topped with glazed or powdered sugar. Other variations include different fillings, such as frosting and buttercream, and different toppings, such as chocolate and granulated sugar. Plum and rose hip jams are traditional Polish fillings.
The correct Polish pronunciation of “pączki” is “pownch-key,” but many pronounce it “punch-key” or “poonch-key.” The ogonek, or little tail, on the “ą” is important: paczki with an “a” and not the “ą” means “packages” in Polish.
The tradition of making and eating pączki dates back to the Middle Ages, when they were filled with pork fat and fried in lard. Pączki were made as a way to use up indulgent items, such as sugar, eggs, butter and lard, before the start of Lent and 40 days of fasting.
In Poland, pączki are traditionally eaten on the Thursday before the start of Lent, also known as Fat Thursday or Tłusty Czwartek. In the United States, pączki are eaten the Tuesday before the start of Lent, also known as Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday or Ostatki.
John Henner, owner of The Neighborhood Bakery & Deli, 2205 Pleasant St. in DeKalb, said his bakery makes pączki with 10 different filling options that are topped with a choice of chocolate icing, vanilla icing, granulated sugar or powdered sugar.
“Our yeast-raised dough is mixed and we make 250 pound batches at a time,” Henner said. “Then we let the dough rise, or proof, portionalize it, then let it proof again. Then they are fried, cooled, filled and then iced or rolled in sugar.”
John’s wife Kathy describes the pączki as “a bismark, an enriched raised-yeast doughnut.”
“Our pączki are made from scratch in our bakery and you can taste that they’re the old-fashioned homemade kind,” Kathy Henner said. “Every year, we make more and more pączki, they’ve become very popular. Our custard-filled, chocolate-topped variety is our top seller.”
The Neighborhood Bakery and Deli made more than 1,000 pounds of pączki this year. Their pączki cost $1.39 each. They also can be special ordered year-round in batches of at least six. Orders placed by 11 a.m. will be ready the next day.
Elleson’s Bakery, 344 W. State St. in Sycamore, makes hundreds of dozens of pączki and sell them only one day a year, Fat Tuesday. Their pączki sell for $1.75 each, feature a variety of fruit, buttercream and custard fillings and all are topped with powdered sugar.
Latsis Bakery, 401 W. Main St. in Genoa, sells pączki with 10 different fillings, including lemon, apricot and strawberry and cream and all are topped with powdered sugar. Latsis Bakery’s pączki sell for $2.25 each or $24 a dozen and are sold the Thursday before Ash Wednesday through the Thursday after.
“We sell them for one week only, it’s like apple cider doughnut season,” owner John Latsis said. “Pączki have seemed to have gained popularity in the last few years.”
Latsis said he saw more people stopping to buy pączki after he put a sign outside the bakery a few years ago. He also makes other cultures’ desserts throughout the year, including Greek baklava, Italian cannoli and Polish kolaczki.
“You don’t have to be Polish to like pączki,” he said. “Everyone likes them. It’s a fun – and tasty – way to celebrate before Ash Wednesday and Lent.”
No matter how you pronounce pączki, what filling you choose or how you like them topped, get the traditional Polish pastry now before they’re gone.