For most of us, today is Fat Tuesday; the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. But, for a small portion of folks, mostly located around the Great Lakes where at the end of the 19th Century Polish immigrants settled to work in steel mills and copper/iron ore mines, today is better known as Paczki Day (pronounced PUNCH-key or PONCH-key depending on which part of the Lakes in which you grew up) .
Paczki are to the Polish what King Cakes are to native New Orleanians. They are a sinfully sweet treat only made before Lent. They are eaten as a last indulgence before the sacrifices of the Lenten season. A good paczki is NOT just a jelly filled donut like so many grocery stores all over are starting to promote. A good paczki is a very sweet, flaky and buttery bun that is traditionally filled with cooked prunes and then either coated with a slightly almond tasting glaze or dusted lightly with powdered sugar. In more recent years you can find paczkis with lemon or cherry filling. But I prefer the traditional prune filled as there is a slightly bittersweet taste to the filling that offsets the sometimes over-powering sweetness of the bun.
I remember as a little girl anxiously awaiting the arrival of Paczki Day. Very early, before anyone else in the house was awake, my dad would drive to a Polish bakery in the next town over to pick up freshly made paczkis. When my brother and I would wake up to go to school, next to our lunch bags would be one paczki my mother would set out for us to munch on in the cold while waiting for the bus. My brother's would be gone before we got to the end of the driveway but I would take little nibbles to savor the treat; knowing it would be a full year before I would have another. I would make mine last until at least morning recess or if I was really stingy with my bites until lunch.
Many years ago, when I was home for a visit around Paczki Day, I did the honors and drove to the bakery for the paczkis. I arrived at the bakery at 4:30am to make sure I was near the front of the line when the bakery opened at 5:00am. I stood outside with about twenty other people; stamping my feet to stave off frostbite and sipping hot chocolate in a styrofoam cup from a thermos someone was passing around . This must have been part of the reason my dad always got up and drove forty-five minutes in the dark cold northern Michigan early morning as it was a feeling of camaraderie. Two years ago, in the middle of a summer visit home, I was introduced to the lady who had purchased that little Polish bakery that spring. The owners had decided to retire and their only requirement for the new owners was that they continue the tradition of opening early on Paczki Day and bake the paczkis in the traditional manner following the same recipe used for over forty years. This lady has become a dear family friend and last year, when I told her that all I could find in Boston were fake jelly filled donuts masquerading as paczki, she gave me the recipe. I had good intentions of making these this year to take into work but time ran out on me over the weekend. So sharing the recipe with you will have to suffice.
Happy Packzi Day!!
Note: I've reduced this recipe as the original given to me made twenty large or forty small packzi. I couldn't be tempted ;-)
1 1/2 packages active dry yeast
10 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
3/4 ounce rum or whiskey
1/4 cup lukewarm milk
1/2 cup melted butter
3 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 cups canned prune filling or cherry jam
(Note: you can substitute any flavoured jam to your liking, just be careful to avoid the really sweet ones as they will be overpowering. Some recipes I've found also use poppy seed paste)
1/2 cup milk, scalded & cooled
1 teaspoon salt
Step 1: Make the sponge
Activate the yeast by dissolving in the 1/4 cup lukewarm milk( milk will become slightly bubbly and frothy in about 5-10 minutes). Scald the 1/2 cup milk while waiting for the yeast to become activated and gradually add the flour into the scalded milk (I sift my flour before adding it to the scalded milk). Add the yeast mixture and stir until smooth. Cover and let rise until very bubbly (about 1/2 hour)
Step 2: Make the dough
Beat the salt into the egg yolks. Then add the sponge to the egg yolks and salt. Mix very well until smooth. Add the sugar and rum again mixing well. Knead in the bowl until a nice smooth dough ball forms. Next, form a well and pour in the melted butter and combine with your hands until thoroughly mixed. Place in a greased bowl, coat with nonstick cooking spray, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled (about 1 - 1 1/2 hours). When dough is doubled, punch it down and let rise until double or triple (about 2 hours).
Step 3: Form the paczki:
Divide dough in half, set one half aside in covered bowl so it doesn't dry out. Roll out the half you are working into a rectangle that is about 1/4 inch thick. Using a biscuit cutter or the mouth of a glass (2" or larger) cut as many rounds as possible. Place a about 3 tsp of filling in the center of one round. Brush edge of round with egg white and cover the filling with another round. Seal edges very well so filling won't leak out and rounds won't separate during last rise. Place the filled paczki greased baking sheets. Leave about 4 inches of room between each paczki to allow for rising. Repeat the process until all the dough is used (this recipe will make between 10 - 12 good sized paczki depending on amount of dough). Lightly cover with greased plastic wrap and let the paczki rise until doubled (about 1 hour).
Step 4: Fry the paczki
(note: if you have a deep fryer, make sure you change the oil if you have fried anything other than pastries)
Pour a neutral tasting oil into a deep fryer or deep pan (about 7 inches if you are using deep pan ). Heat the oil until it is about 360 to 370 degrees. Deep fry the paczki for about 3 minutes per side or until golden brown on both sides and it floats to the top. Let drain on cooling rack covered with paper towel to absorb any excess oil (flip over after about 2 minutes or so) Dust with powdered sugar when slightly warm. Let cool completely before serving as filling will be very hot otherwise.
3/1 Update: My adopted hometown newpaper ran a front page picture of paczi's coming off the cooling racks today! Oh yum!