In Poland—and Polish communities—Fat Thursday is observed on the Thursday before Lent. People traditionally celebrate by eating pączki (pronounced POHNCH-kee), fried rounds of sweet yeast dough often filled with jelly. The doughnuts are eaten in such quantities that the day is called Pączki Day.
Polish culture and baking are two important themes of my 5th Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites Mystery, Tradition of Deceit. I wrote the doughnuts into the historical plotline, which involves several generations of Polish immigrants. A young widow runs a boardinghouse in Bohemian Flats, Minneapolis, to make ends meet: Frania became famous for her poppyseed cakes, gingerbread, and especially pączki, the filled doughnuts Poles held dear.
Needless to say, I had to try them.
I turned first to one of my favorite cookbooks, Wisconsin’s Folkways in Foods. The Wisconsin Home Economics Association produced the collection in 1948 to celebrate the state’s Centennial. All of the recipes were contributed by cooks from around the state, and organized by ethnic group. The Polish chapter included two recipes for Pączki.
After studying those—and a few others—I was ready to go.
2 c. milk
2 packets yeast
3/4 C. sugar
5-6 c. white flour
1 whole egg + 3 egg yolks
1-1/2 t. vanilla extract
1 t. salt + 1/4 t. salt
4 T. unsalted butter, melted
vegetable oil for frying (or your choice–peanut oil, canola oil, lard, etc.)
4. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg and egg yolks until smooth. Add sugar, vanilla, and salt, and whisk again for at least a minute. Mixture should be light and frothy.
5. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and stir until smooth. If using an electric mixer, switch to the dough hook attachment. Add the melted butter. Add three cups of flour, one at a time, mixing after each addition.
6. If necessary, add additional flour, 1/4 c. at a time, to make a soft dough that is just starting to hold its shape.
7. Lightly grease a second mixing bowl. Transfer dough to the new bowl.
Cover with plastic wrap or a damp cloth and let rise in a warm spot for 20-30 minutes.
8. Use a wooden spoon to push dough down in bowl. Transfer a portion of dough to a clean, well-floured surface. Sprinkle with flour. Roll to about 1/2″ thick. Use a glass or biscuit cutter to cut rounds. Add more flour as needed to keep dough from sticking. Save the scraps to roll out again. Scrape the surface of any dough residue before rolling out the next batch.
9. OPTIONS FOR FORMING: Some recipes all for adding jelly before frying, and some don’t. Of those that do, some call for using one round, and some two. I decided to try each kind.
One of the 1948 Pączki recipes didn’t call for rolling the dough at all: “Pull off small pieces size of large egg. Stretch dough with hands to 1/2 inch thick. Put T. cooked, seeded prunes in center. Draw dough over filling, making ball, and pinch together.” (This woman’s recipe also called for 10 cups of flour, so she was making a whole lot of Pączki.)
I liked that cook’s style, so I decided to try a few that way. It worked best with the dough scraps that had already been rolled, and so had incorporated more flour.
(Some people also form balls of dough, fry, and then add jelly by piercing a hole in each doughnut and piping it in. I did not try that version.)
10. Transfer the doughnuts to baking sheets. I don’t usually use parchment paper, but with this sticky dough it did help.
11. Let rise in a warm spot for 20-30 minutes. They will puff up a bit.
12. While waiting, pour about 2″ of oil in a heavy kettle or large skillet with tall sides and place on stove over medium heat. You’ll want the oil hot when the doughnuts are ready.
13. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the doughnuts into the oil. If you have trouble getting transferring the dough to the spoon without it losing shape, it might be helpful to invert the doughnut over the spoon and slowly peel back the parchment paper. The hardest doughnuts to transfer were the unfilled ones. which tended to crinkle and lose their shape.
14. The oil is hot enough when a bit of dough dropped into the kettle immediately sizzles, about 350 degrees. Use a thermometer if in doubt. Let each doughnut cook until the bottom is golden, then carefully turn and cook other side.
Remove with a slotted spoon and drain for a moment against the side of the pan. Transfer to a pan lined with paper towels to drain further. Repeat until all doughnuts are fried.
15. Roll the warm doughnuts in granulated sugar. (Some prefer powdered sugar.) Pączki are best served warm, but they will keep in an airtight container for a few days.
The prettiest doughnuts were the ones I had not rolled on a board, but instead just formed into balls in my hands. I was least satisfied with the unfilled doughnuts. I rolled the dough too thinly.
I finally had the chance to sample real Pączki at Poland Under Glass, a wonderful event held at the Milwaukee Domes each winter. A Polish baker from Chicago provided hundreds, and sold out mid-day. They were much bigger than I’d made—next time I’ll know—and gloriously good.
Toward the end of Tradition of Deceit, Chloe makes Pączki to serve at a reception. “Oh – my – God,” says one of her friends, after trying one. “The guests will love them.”
Curious? No need to wait for Pączki Day. Make someone happy!