Next Tuesday is Fat Tuesday, of course, and while most people’s attention will be focused south, to New Orleans et environs, there’s a lot to be said for looking to the Great Lakes, to the blossoming cities of the Area Formerly Known As The Rust Bowl, and to the Fat Tuesday treats of their Polish heritage: paczki.
Paczki (also spelled “pozcki” or “ponczaks,” and pronounced “POONCH-key”) are a large doughnut-like yeast-dough pastry, filled traditionally with prune, then fried in lard and rolled in sugar.
Naturally, they are delicious beyond all reason.
Paczki were invented, the story goes, because Polish cooks were looking to clear their larder of all temptations before Lent, and Polish kitchens don’t have too many things more tempting than sugar, butter, eggs, lard, and fruit.
The pastries made their way to America with the first big wave of Polish immigrants in the late 1800s. They became a staple of church-basement bake sales and ethnic bakeries, but outside of the cities where they’re found, paczki are largely ignored.
If there’s any time to pay attention to paczki, it’s now. Many big-city bakeries are offering paczki on a limited basis through Fat Tuesday or Ash Wednesday. And if you’re not a prune person, don’t worry. The artisanal-flavor thing has even washed over paczki, meaning they now fill pretty much the entire flavor spectrum between lavender-ginger and sage-sriracha.
Whether you look at them as a clear-the-cupboard concoction or the best jelly doughnut ever, now is the time to hit these bakeries and scoop up your paczki before they disappear for another year.
Delightful Pastries, Chicago: Anytime is paczki time at Delightful – that’s how owners and bakers Dobra Bielinski and Stasia Hawryszczuk want it – but now through Feb. 18 is the time to score some limited-edition flavors like Jameson whiskey chocolate, vodka custard, and strawberries and cream.
Dinkel’s Bakery, Chicago: This North Side tradition (German, but who’s counting?) has 14 flavors of paczki waiting for you, from the traditional prune to lighter (relatively) flavors like fresh strawberry. The best flavors sell out fast, so order ahead. And if you’re feeling Lousianan, pick up a King Cake to go.
New Palace Bakery, Hamtramck, Mich.: Let’s go out and proclaim the New Palace as America’s place for paczki, and Hamtramck as Paczkitown, USA. The city even has a Paczki Day parade on Fat Tuesday (and after-hours paczki parties to boot), and bakeries in the town are jammed that day with every self-respecting doughnut eater in the Detroit Metro. New Palace offers 17 different fillings including two-in-one and three-in-one flavors, and every one is paczki perfection. We are particularly fond of the Hamtramck Boat – banana custard, strawberry and pineapple covered with chocolate. Of course you’re going to want to order ahead.
New Martha Washington Bakery, Hamtramck: The New Palace may be No. 1, but the New Martha Washington isn’t far behind. Creator of Michigan’s largest paczki, the Martha Washington offers the same wide range of flavors and is the perfect fallback if the New Palace is just too crazy, as it’s liable to be.
Kiedrowski’s Simply Delicious Bakery, Amherst, Ohio: Of course they make fantastic paczki here. With a name like that, how can they not? Kiedrowski’s claims to play polka music to its paczki while baking “to give them a made in America to Poland taste.” Hmmmm. Still, tradition rules here, and flavors like rose-hip, apricot, and lekvar (creamed prune) give you a literal taste of what makes paczki so special.
Stan’s Bakery, Northfield, Ohio: This small northern Ohio town, halfway between Akron and Cleveland, lacks the clamoring crowds of the Hamtramck bakeries but offers just as authentic a product. (“Stan’s makes paczki all year … because we are POLISH!” its website proudly proclaims.) You can go for the marshmallow meringue if you want, but we’re all in on the Big Dupa – Polish for “big butt.” And not by accident.
North Branch Bakery, North Branch, Mich.: Sandy Czaczkowski has been making traditional paczki for more than 20 years, and this family-run mid-Michigan bakery delivers as authentic a paczki as you’ll find north of Detroit. Czaczkowski will run through more than 10,000 paczki between now and Tuesday, mostly in traditional flavors like blueberry, raspberry and lemon. Better get yours now.
Oakmont Bakery, Oakmont, Pa.: It had to happen: the maple-bacon paczki. That alone may not warrant a visit to this Pittsburgh tradition, nor will flavors like peach, but Oakmont is the consensus pick for great paczki in Pittsburgh. One added bonus: The bakery will be selling paczki through Easter, so even if you whiff on Paczki Day there’s still time to get your fill of the temptations banned from Polish kitchens during the 40 days of fasting.
Editor’s Note: Just like eating 40 prune paczki from the New Palace Bakery is a #RiskWorthTaking, so is traveling without AirCare or ExactCare from Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. Take ’em wherever you go!