It's Fat Tuesday! Eat a Polish Pączki

By: Tara Yarlagadda  | 

paczki
Polish fried donuts, or pączki, are seen in a window display at a bakery in Warsaw, Poland. People in Poland eat pączki, fried donuts filled with cream or jam, on Fat Thursday to mark the last Thursday before the start of Lent. Xinhua/Jaap Arriens/Getty Images

You might think you've eaten a good pastry or two in your life, but you really haven't truly lived until you've tried a pączek (plural: pączki, pronounced "pawnch-kee" or "poonch-key").

This round Polish donut is a warm, fluffy treat associated closely with the pre-Lent religious holiday Fat Tuesday, or the Tuesday that falls before Ash Wednesday every year. And, let's face it — Mardi Gras wouldn't be Mardi Gras without it.

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How Do You Make Pączki?

The word pączek roughly means 'bud,' likely referring to its round shape, which is practically bursting at the seams with filling. Rose filling (and sometimes fried rose buds) is a component of a traditional pączek.

"It's got sugar, butter, eggs and savory flowers," says Sandy Bakic, whose parents became owners of the New Martha Washington Bakery in greater Detroit in 1973, where she's been working since she was a teenager.

The sweet treat is made of yeasty dough and comes covered in an icy glaze or powdered sugar. It also typically contains some type of cheesy cream or fruit-based filling, like cannoli cream or marmalade. Typical flavors include raspberry, strawberry, apricot and rose.

"My favorite filling in pączki is apricots," Bakic says.

Making the dough is a painstaking labor of love, which Bakic describes as a "lengthy process." "You make the big balls of dough. Then you wait till they rise. Then you make smaller individual pączki, then you let those rise, and then you fry them," Bakic says.

Although Bakic says that you could opt for a non-traditional pączki without filling, you'd really be missing out on the true flavors of the dessert. "We sell a lot more filled pączki than non-filled," she says.

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The History of Pączki

Pączki originated in Poland in the Middle Ages, but became more commonplace in the U.S. in the 20th century as Polish immigrants populated urban centers and brought their food traditions with them. Pączki evolved from a Polish pastry into a Midwestern regional treat.

"I read that every Polish person eats 2.5 paczki on Fat Thursday," said Bart Kolatek, the second-generation owner of Kolatek's Bakery & Deli, in a 2020 interview with Chicago PBS affiliate WTTW.

Each year, tens of thousands of people in Polish-heavy communities in the midwestern U.S., such as Chicago and Detroit, flock to local bakeries to purchase the confection on Fat Tuesday, also informally known as "Pączki Day" or "Polish Mardis Gras." Some people also celebrate the event on the previous Thursday, known as "Fat Thursday."

As Bob Dombrowski wrote in his book, "Paczki Day," pączki's association with the pre-Lent holiday Fat Tuesday stems from the Ash Wednesday religious ritual, which marks the beginning of Lent.

At the approach of Lent, which requires giving up something — often a favorite food — Polish families would combine any excess sugar, flour and jam, which is how they came up with pączki.

Bakic's family is of Serbian origin from the former Yugoslavia, and they immigrated to the U.S. in 1969. But they still use the recipes provided by the original Polish owners.

According to Bakic, the Polish man who had opened the bakery passed away, but his wife entrusted his recipes to the Bakic family. "She gave them to me. And they were the same recipes that we have been using all along," says Bakic. "This is a Polish bakery. We've had the pleasure and privilege to work with all the old-time Polish bakers," she adds.

Although Bakic is aware of the donut's religious associations, for her, the treat holds a greater cultural significance than a religious one. As a child, Bakic grew up eating sweet treats like pączki in her Serbian household, which she would eat "as soon as they came out of the kettle."

"[In] the European countries, whether you come from Serbia, Croatia, Romania, Poland, Czech Republic, our grandmas made these scrumptious little treats, just before Lent," Bakic says.

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Are Pączki Donuts?

Bakeries and websites typically describe this sweet treat as a Polish donut. Indeed, donuts and pączki share many similarities, from the familiar round doughy shape to the glaze on top.

But, technically, the donut has an entirely separate American history, having been brought to the states by the Dutch or the English, long before the arrival of Polish immigrants.

Some bakers feel that it's better to just leave donuts as donuts, and call pączki by their real name.

"It is not a donut; it is a European treat," Bakic says.

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Pączki Is Also a Dyngus Day Staple

If you missed out on Pączki Day this year, fret not. There are plenty more opportunities to chow down on this delicious pastry, including the Polish religious holiday Dyngus Day, which takes place in Polish communities every year on the Monday following Easter.

During Dyngus Day, revelers play music, dress up in the red and white colors of the Polish flag, and, of course, eat pączki. Buffalo, New York even bills itself as the "Dyngus Day capital of the world."

And, of course, if you're a talented baker, you can make pączki year-round, provided you're up for the challenge.

"You have to be basically a master baker to know the chain from measuring to mixing, because when [you] get them frying, the next batch has to be ready to get fried," Bakic says.

"Otherwise, you'll never have enough pączki."

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