Pączki – Polish Doughnuts

February 19, 2015

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.)
1.  Warm the milk. If you are not used to using scratch baking, use a thermometer to achieve a good temperature for the yeast, about 110 degrees. Pour the milk into a mixing bowl. (Note: you can mix everything by hand, of course, but a mixer works just fine.)
2.  Stir in the yeast and a pinch of the sugar. Let stand for 10-15 minutes. You should see bubbles starting to form.Polish doughnuts3.  Add 2 cups of flour to the milk mixture and stir gently (or at lowest speed) until smooth. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp towel and set in a warm spot for the first rising. Let rise for 30 minutes.

Polish doughnuts

Since I, alas, do not have a nice woodstove with warming oven, I heat my electric oven to 100 degrees, turn off the heat, and put the bowl in there.

Polish doughnuts

After 30 minutes the sponge has risen nicely, with lots of bubbles.

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.

Polish doughnuts

Here the dough is beginning to pull away from the bowl, but it is not thick enough to form a ball.

7.  Lightly grease a second mixing bowl. Transfer dough to the new bowl.

Polish doughnuts

Cover with plastic wrap or a damp cloth and let rise in a warm spot for 20-30 minutes.

Polish doughnuts

This is what happens when you don’t keep a close eye on your dough. In 30 minutes it was overflowing the bowl. No harm done!

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.

Polish doughnuts

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.

Polish doughnuts

The two dough balls on the left were formed by putting a dollop of jelly on a single round of dough, sealing the edges with my fingers, and rolling them between my palms to get a ball shape. For the other six rounds, I placed a second round of dough over the first and pinched the edges closed.

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.

Polish doughnuts

(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.

Polish doughnuts

Bottom row: single, unfilled rounds. Middle row: jelly-filled balls made from a single round each. Top row: jelly-filled doughnuts made from 2 rounds, edges pinched together to close.

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.

Polish doughnuts

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.

Polish doughnuts

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.

Polish doughnuts

Top: jelly-filled, made with two rounds of dough. Right: jelly-filled, formed by hand. Bottom: unfilled. Left: jelly-filled, formed from one round of dough.

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.

Polish doughnut

In the name of scholarly research, Scott and I had to try different flavors.

Rosehip filling, From Olympia bakery, Chicago

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!

Polish doughnuts

Final Ten Book Tuesday Giveaway – Winners Announced!

February 17, 2015

Congratulations to Clara Martin and Karla Lawrence, winners in the Ten Book Tuesday Giveaway! (The other winners entered on my Facebook page.)

I will post another special Giveaway soon after my next book, The Smuggler’s Secrets:  A Caroline Mystery, is published at the end of the month.

* * *

In honor of my 31st book being published later this month, I’m thanking my wonderful readers by giving away 31 books!

Leave a comment here by midnight today, Tuesday February 17, to enter the third drawing.



Ten winners will each choose one of my titles and receive a signed, personalized copy. Winners will be chosen at random from entries here and on my Facebook page.  I’ll announce the winners tomorrow, so please check back then!

Gratitude Giveaway – Winners Announced!

February 10, 2015

Congratulations to Carole Dagg and Callie, winners in the Ten Book Tuesday Giveaway! (The other winners entered on my Facebook page.)

Everyone else – there will be more chances to win. I’ll hold another Giveaway next Tuesday.

Carole and Callie, you’ll find lots of information about all of my books on my website, kathleenernst.com. There’s also a contact form on the website. Please email me with your full name and postal address, the title you want, and to whom you’d like it personalized. Happy reading!

* * *

In honor of my 31st book being published later this month, I’m giving away 31 books in February.

Leave a comment here by midnight today, Tuesday February 10, to enter the second drawing.


Ten winners will each choose one of my titles and receive a signed, personalized copy. Winners will be chosen at random from entries here and on my Facebook page. I’ll announce the winners tomorrow, so please check back then!

Gratitude Giveaway – Winners Announced!

February 3, 2015

Congratulations to Elizabeth Dusik and Marilyn, winners in the Ten Book Tuesday Giveaway! (The other winners entered on my Facebook page.)

Everyone else – there will be lots more chances to win. I’ll hold another Giveaway next Tuesday.

Elizabeth and Marilyn, you’ll find lots of information about all of my books on my website, kathleenernst.com. There’s also a contact form on the website. Please email me with your full name and postal address, the title you want, and to whom you’d like it personalized. Happy reading!


In honor of my 31st book being published later this month, I’m giving away 31 books in February.

Leave a comment here by midnight today, Tuesday February 3, to enter the first drawing.


Ten winners will each choose one of my titles and receive a signed, personalized copy. Winners will be chosen at random from entries here and on my Facebook page. I’ll announce the winners tomorrow, so please check back then!


Death on the Prairie – Sneak Preview

January 27, 2015

I’ve gotten lots of queries about the 6th Chloe Ellefson mystery. When is it coming? Which historic sites are featured?

So, I’m happy to share a sneak preview. Death on the Prairie will be published by Midnight Ink in October, 2015.


Here’s the official scoop:

Chloe Ellefson and her sister, Kari, have long dreamed of visiting each historic site dedicated to Laura Ingalls Wilder. When Chloe takes custody of a quilt once owned by the beloved author, the sisters set out on the trip of a lifetime, hoping to prove that Wilder stitched it herself.

But death strikes as the journey begins, and trouble stalks their fellow travelers. Among the “Little House” devotees are academic critics, greedy collectors, and obsessive fans. Kari is distracted by family problems, and unexpected news from Chloe’s boyfriend jeopardizes her own future. As the sisters travel deeper into Wilder territory, Chloe races to discover the truth about a precious artifact—and her own heart—before a killer can strike again.

Laura Ingalls Wilder…antique quilts…a six-state road trip…this one was lots of fun to develop.

I’ll have lots more to share about Death on the Prairie later this year. Stay tuned!

Roelke Goes To Prison

January 6, 2015

When writing Tradition of Deceit, I needed to include a set scene at a prison. Waupun Correctional Institution was the logical choice. The prison is one of the oldest in the country. It is listed on the Wisconsin register of historic places, and in 1992 was added to the National Register of Historic Places as the “Wisconsin State Prison Historic District.”


This maximum security prison was established in 1851, just three years after Wisconsin achieved statehood. A temporary structure housed inmates until the first permanent building was completed in 1854. Prison workers helped build that stone structure. It held both men and women until 1933, when a separate women’s facility was constructed.


Many additions have been made over the years, adding separate structures to the 22-acre facility. In 1940 the original building was remodeled, but the exterior walls remain, and the structure is still in use.


One of the old turret-style guard towers is visible through the fence.

I had the opportunity to tour the prison and hear from the wardens and several staff members before Tradition of Deceit was published. (One poignant detail of my visit—Waupun is only about 20 miles from the Horicon Marsh Wildlife Refuge, and each time we walked outside I saw and heard geese flying overhead.)

Visiting a maximum security prison is inherently sad and grim, but I was also very impressed with the work the prison staff is doing to assist the different populations incarcerated there.

So…what would Roelke’s experience at Waupun been like? Then as now, he saw the prison surrounded by a beautiful neighborhood with many gorgeous old homes.

Waupun home & prison


Waupun home

No one I spoke with had worked in the prison in 1983, but some changes are obvious. One of the warden’s main goals is reducing idleness among the prisoners. New programs mean the men are much more likely to engage in work, hobbies, or educational activities. In 1983, more men would have been staring at the walls.

Roelke’s visit also happened to come in a tumultuous period at Waupun and other Wisconsin prisons. One of the critical factors was severe over-crowding; in 1983, the prison intended to hold 810 prisoners held over 1,200. Tiny cells intended to house one man held four.

Inmates and guards felt tension rising, and some in both groups felt that threats against their safety were not being addressed. In January, 1983, prisoners at Waupun rioted, and managed to take 15 hostages.

Waupun - Version 2

AP/Milwaukee Sentinel photo taken during the stand-off.

After 10 tense hours, 200 officers managed to resume control of the buildings where the inmates involved with barricaded.



AP/Milwaukee Sentinel photo.


Milwaukee Sentinel Photo by Sherman Gessert.

I briefly considered incorporating that story into Tradition of Deceit, which is set in February, 1983. In the end it went into the “interesting but not relevant” pile.

Instead, I focused primarily on the area where inmates received visitors. Visitation has actually declined since 1983, due to rising gas prices and declining phone service prices. The visitation room of 1983 no longer exists, in part because pillars blocked guards’ visibility. My description is an amalgam of what I saw in 2014 and what I heard about the former setting. (Photography is not permitted inside the prison, so I can’t show it.)


Waupun Correctional Institution holds a unique position in Wisconsin’s prison system, and is a reminder that historic places come in all varieties.

Coming Attractions – 2015

January 3, 2015

Happy New Year! I hope you have lots of good things on the horizon. Here are some things I’m looking forward to in 2015:


1.  New books! I have three titles being published this year.

First, due February 28, The Smuggler’s Secrets:  A Caroline Mystery from American Girl.


The War of 1812 is still raging when Caroline goes to visit her cousin Lydia and Uncle Aaron’s farm deep in the woods. While there, she finds evidence that someone is smuggling precious supplies to the British. She can’t believe anyone would help the enemy during wartime! Even worse: could the traitor be her own uncle?

Writing this mystery let me explore some fascinating topics that didn’t fit into the original Caroline stories. I’ll have lots more to share about Caroline’s adventures here on Sites and Stories in the coming weeks, and on my website too.

Second, due in September, A Settler’s Year:  Pioneer Life through the Seasons, from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. This book features lots of first-hand accounts from Wisconsin’s early Yankee and European settlers, and is illustrated by gorgeous photos taken by Loyd Heath at Old World Wisconsin. The combination is, I think, quite evocative.  This will be my first nonfiction title in over a decade!

And third, the 6th Chloe Ellefson mystery, Death on the Prairie, will be published by Midnight Ink in October. I haven’t quite finished that one, so—more later.

2.  Connecting with readers!

I love meeting readers in person, and am currently scheduling library visits and other events for the coming year. You can always see what’s going on by visiting the calendar page of my website.

I also have some new ideas about connecting with readers online this year, here on Sites and Stories and on my Facebook page.

All details will be shared in my quarterly newsletters. Not on my mailing list?  Sign up here.

And, if you haven’t visited my website lately, you’re missing lots of enhanced features to help readers explore the world behind every book.

3.  Thanking readers!

Tradition of Deceit:  A Chloe Ellefson Mystery, published last fall, was my 30th title. I was too busy to celebrate, and to thank readers for making that benchmark possible. Within the next week or so I’ll post details of a very special giveaway.

I’ll also be sharing more behind-the-scenes glimpses of the stories that inspired Tradition of Deceit here in the coming weeks and months.

Tradition Of Deceit Cover

Thanks for staying connected, and happy reading!


December 31, 2014

It’s been a busy year! In 2014 I published two books—Catch The Wind:  My Journey With Caroline and Tradition of Deceit:  A Chloe Ellefson Mystery—and worked on three more. By my rough count I also provided 34 programs of one sort or another.  I spent 103 days on the road, researching and writing and meeting readers.

I met Chloe readers who are kindred spirits. I also met lots of amazing girls at Caroline events.


Many lovely readers connected through the mail, too.  Since I write for both adults and kids, I never know what might show up in my mailbox. Some of my favorites are addressed in pencil…


Or purple marker.

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This reader told me she likes to read books by flashlight under the covers at night, just as I used to do.

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Sometimes a letter simply melts my heart…

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And sometimes they make me smile.

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( I sent her a couple of bookmarks. I don’t know if that qualifies as “cool stuff.”)

I love getting pictures:


An 8-year-old named Maura sent not only a lovely letter, but a story she wrote about Caroline.


And a Caroline book club from North Carolina sent me these beautiful ornaments.


Many Chloe readers also take the time to connect via email, this blog, or on Facebook:

“Because of you we took a day trip to Deborah to explore our Norwegian heritage. If it were not for the book, I would not have even known about it. We had a wonderful time.”

“LOVED THE NEW BOOK!!!!!! OMG! My only regret about the book is that I will have to wait a WHOLE year for the next book to come out!  But with a little chocolate, I will get over it.”

(Chloe would approve of that one.)

I don’t usually get artwork from Chloe readers, but my friend Alisha made these amazing wycinanki cakes for the Tradition of Deceit launch party.


I’m a very lucky writer.

I wrote novels for many years before my professional career began, so believe me, I don’t take anything for granted. Readers have made all of this possible. Thank you.

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I look forward to more fun in the coming year!  Happy reading.

Meet Pawel

December 8, 2014

Often in the Chloe books, a very minor character ends up being among the most memorable. I discovered this when The Heirloom Murders (the 2nd Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery) was published. Many readers wrote to me about Johann and Frieda, even though the elderly couple were only briefly onstage.

In Tradition of Deceit, the 5th volume in the series, a Polish immigrant named  Pawel appears in the historical plotline. Pawel lives in The Bohemian Flats neighborhood in Minneapolis. He works at the Washburn-Crosby Mill, one of the loaders who move packed barrels of flour to the rail corridor within the mill.

Pawel 1

This illustration from a 19th-century article shows a packer at work. Once each barrel was filled, the lid was nailed on top and it was ready to go.

A full barrel of flour weighed 196 pounds. In 1882, the mill produced 1,500 barrels a day; that increased to 10,000 by 1900. Loaders also hauled sacks of flour weighing up to 100 pounds. This exhausting, entry-level work often went to immigrants.

Pawel 2

General Mills included this engraving from the 1880s in a 20th-century ad.

In Tradition of Deceit, Pawel’s story begins in the spring of 1878. Magdalena, who runs the boarding house where Pawel is living, notes of the men coming home:

The men looked like ghosts. Flour dusted their hair, their skin, their clothes. Tiny balls of sweat-caked flour caught on the hairs along their arms.

Pawel was a big man with massive shoulders and corded muscles. He spent his 12-hour shifts rolling 196-lb. barrels of flour from the packing machines into train cars. He was part of the Polish Eagles, a six-man crew that usually bested other packing teams when challenged to a race.   No one would pick a fight with Pawel.

But unlike some of the other laborers, Pawel had a gentle manner. His face was broad and plain, his hair the color of dried mud, his hands huge. No one would call him handsome, but Magdalena liked him. She thought he liked her. Maybe, she thought, just maybe…

Pawel pulled a rag from his pocket and dabbed at his eyes. “Was the dust bad today?” Magdalena asked. The men often came home with red-rimmed, watering eyes.

“As bad as I’ve ever seen it,” Pawel admitted. “So thick in the air that I couldn’t see my hand at the end of my arm.”

Mill City Museum - loaders

Illustration from an interpretive panel at the Mill City Museum

It’s difficult to find primary source material for characters like Pawel, but as I thought about those early loaders, two things struck me. First, the work was incredibly difficult.

Second, many of the men who stuck it out made the best of it.  They formed teams, and the loading competitions became legendary.  I love imagining these burly men not just loading the barrels or sacks into train cars, but doing it as fast as humanly possible.

Mill City Museum exhibit

Mill City Museum exhibit.

If you visit the Mill City Museum, you can walk through the rail corridor, and peek inside an original train car.

Mill City Museum Rail Corridor

Exhibits preserve some of the machines once used in flour mills…

Mill City Museum

and make it easy to imagine the many men who once worked so hard to keep flour moving out of the mill.

Mill City Museum

Old-Time Cinnamon Jumbles

November 12, 2014

Like Chloe Ellefson, protagonist of my historic sites mysteries, I love to bake. Historic foodways are most fun of all. Tradition of Deceit sees Chloe visiting the site destined to become the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, which is all about historic baking. Since I’m an experiential kind of author, I’ve been busy in the kitchen.

The Mill City Museum is located in the former A Mill of the Washburn Crosby Company. Washburn Crosby Company began publishing cookbooks in the 1890s. In the 1920s-1930s, the Gold Medal Home Services Department made recipe boxes filled with cards available as premiums to home bakers. The cards were wildly popular.

I purchased a set online, and after thumbing through, this is the recipe I wanted to try first.




I planned to follow this recipe exactly. I used Gold Medal Flour and dutifully beat the eggs before adding them.

beating eggs

I even got out my vintage sifter.

As directed, I baked the first pan for 9 minutes, then removed the pan to add the cinnamon/sugar mixture. However, the cookies were already so set that most of the sprinkling didn’t bake into the cookies, and instead fell off when I removed the pan again 3 minutes later. (Perhaps my oven doesn’t match what was in the test kitchen.)

version 1 jumbles

So I felt compelled to tinker. On the next pan, I sprinkled the topping onto the cookies prior to putting the pan into the oven. That worked better, but wasn’t quite right either.

version 2 jumbles

These cookies don’t spread much while baking, so the rough contours of the dough after being dropped from the spoon remained. Most, but not all, of the topping stayed in place.

Finally I sprinkled the cookies and then flattened the cookies slightly with a spoon before baking. This pressed the cinnamon/sugar into the dough, and removed the rough contours from the cookie. (The dough was so soft that it was impossible to flatten slightly before adding the topping.)

versioni 3 jumbles

The third pan.  Much better.

versioni 3 jumbles

Ah—a perfect cookie.

3 sample jumbles

For comparison: first batch on the left, second batch on the top, and the final batch on the right.

The only other discrepancy was that I ended up with 4 dozen cookies, not 5 dozen. I’m sure that’s because I automatically dropped dough based on modern norms, instead of paying more attention and making smaller cookies as directed.

These cookies are light, moist, and delicious however you handle the topping. I suspect that your family—or book discussion group—will love them!


PS – The recipe for Rolled Sour Cream Cookies sounds good too.  If anyone tries it, let me know how they come out!


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