It’s almost time to enjoy Paczki! In case you don’t know, Paczki (pronounced poanchkee) are very rich donuts, deep fried and then filled with fruit or cream filling and covered with powdered sugar or icing.
Eating paczki is the traditional Polish way to indulge before the fasting in observance of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. Paczki have been known in Poland at least since the Middle Ages.
Connie Adams, delegate for the Polish Cultural Garden, says “One might think Packzi are just jelly donuts…..oh…they are not. Packzi has a rich dough made with egg giving it a cakey texture. Deliciously filled with you name it….and covered in a sugary glaze. Packzi are the last real treat before the start of Lent. It is an authentic tradition straight from Poland. Rose jelly is my favorite filling…and the best packzi I have ever had was in Krakow, not far from Wawel Castle. “
Although they look like jelly doughnuts, paczki are made from especially rich dough containing eggs, fats, sugar and sometimes milk. Traditionally, a small amount of Spiritus grain alcohol is added to the dough before cooking; as it evaporates, it prevents the absorption of oil deep into the dough.
In the Catholic faith Lent calls for 40 days of fasting: meaning one meal a day and full fasting on Friday. Any rich foods are not allowed. The week before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, families used up food so that it would not be spoiled or wasted.
What better way to use up eggs, butter and sugar and fruit then by treating themselves one last time with these rich donuts?
Cleveland Councilman Tony Brancatelli says “Fat Tuesday was always a big a day in Slavic Village and historically we had a lot of bakeries to choose from such as Chambers, Piskac, Beckers to name a few. My favorite was Gertrude Bakery off of East 65th.
Gertrude Bakery in Slavic Village
When I worked for a finance company in the early 80’s I traveled a lot. Many of my clients knew I was from Slavic Village and they would ask me to bring them authentic Packzi’s on Fat Tuesday. So I would load up my company car with boxes of those delicious treats from Gertrude Bakery and deliver them throughout the State. This was a rare moment when a business was happy to see the finance company auditor walk in their door!!! Needless to say my car smelled like a bakery for weeks after.
My company human resources person always chuckled when I turned in my receipts because they were dated “1947”. I had to explain to them that the bakery must have gotten a deal on a case of receipts then and they never bought new ones since they had so many! They have been closed a decade now, but I will never forget that wonderful aroma in my car, it brings back fond memories.”
According to The Polish American Journal, the packzki tradition was started in the medieval age during the reign of August III. The zapusty or “carnival season” reached its height during this period. Elegant balls were held in well-to-do manor houses, attended by young men, women, and their parents. Country-folk, on the other hand, would make merry, drink, dance and flirt at the village inn. The rich would feast on fancy hors d’oeuvres, roast game, and fine wines. Peasants enjoyed their zimne noge (jellied pig’s knuckles), kiszka (blood and groat sausage), and kielbasa z kapusta (sausage and cabbage), which they washed down with beer and gorzalka, the least expensive vodka available. Common to both groups, however, were paczki, which were consumed in huge quantities.
Cleveland International Hall of Fame inductee Irene Morrow says the most traditional is plum. She always used to make them with her mother and always addedd vodka to the dough.Now her daughter makes then. Irene says, “We made them this year already and they are already gone!”
In Poland, paczki sales are the highest on Tlusty Czwartek, or “Fat Thursday.” This day marks the start of the final week of the pre-Lenten celebrations. The traditional reason for making paczki was to use up all the lard, sugar, eggs and fruit in the house, because their consumption was forbidden by Christian fasting practices during the season of Lent.
In the United States, Paczki Day is observed the day before Ash Wednesday. It became popular in the Polish communities from the beginning of the 20th century. Polish immigrants settled in different parts of the U.S., such as Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore, Chicago, Buffalo, and especially Hamtramck, Michigan — considered the paczki capitol of the world. Each year they add music, dancing to their paczki process. In the wee hours, the Polish bakeries will have lines around the block where people wait to buy their treats!
Recently, Paczki Day has expanded as more people have heard about this Polish tradition and want to become a part of this tasty holiday. Wannabe paczki can be found up to a month before Fat Tuesday in almost every food store: deli, grocery, and bakery. People just cannot pass up a delicious food holiday and Paczki Day can be considered one of the best.
For the last 15 years, John Niedzialek, Erosion & Sediment Control Inspector, has been educating folks at his work place about packzi.
John Niedzialek with packzi
John says “I have sampled many bakeries. I bring in dozens to work each Fat Tuesday and invite many to attend but this year will be a sad day as we cannot do that due to the pandemic. But rest assured I will make my deliveries.”
Paczki bring back some of my oldest memories as when I lived in my two family home on Kosciuszko near St. Casimir church in the 1960’s, I used to help my grandmother fry the paczki in large cast iron skillets in the basement.
It was my important job to be the “paczki flipper” to get them turned over at just the right time to brown them properly. These warm fresh paczki only needed some powdered sugar to make them a treat I will never forget.
John Niedzialek distributing packzi at work
Grandma Sempolski distributed them to all those around so I take a turn now.
All ages love paczki!
Polish Youngstown has an annual Paczki, Polkas & Piwo (Donuts, Dancing & Drafts)Party. They feature various varieies such as:
- Plain Sugared
- Poppy Seed
- and, of course, the original and most authentic – the famous Rose Hip Jam
Alos popular are there Packzi Sliders – a plain, sugared paczki donut, grilled on the flat top joined by grilled kielbasa and dressed in red onions, brown mustard, and, of course because it is Kravitz, a pickle slice!
They also feature a PYTown Paczek made with an extra dose of Polish pride, this Paczek is filled with both RED (rosehip jam) and WHITE (Bavarian cream)! Two favorites melded together.
Aundrea Cika Heschmeyer, Executive Director of PolishYoungstown Inc., says “My fondest Paczki memory was making them with my mother. Duh – nothing original there — the difference is why.
I was attending Alliance College, the former Polish College in NW Pa and the campus was gearing up for its annual Krakow Days (public open house Polish fest type thing). I was sorority president (surprised? No!) that year and looking for a way to offer a fundraiser at the daylong fest. My cousin Bozena had just arrived from Poland and she and my mom suggested Paczki.
I had noooo idea what we were agreeing to do
My entire sorority drives down to the little PLAV Club on Youngstown’s north side and spends a full day mixing, rolling, waiting, frying in VATS of hot oil + sprytus laughing, singing and sharing stories the whole time. We arrived on campus the next morning with van loads of Paczki and even more memories.
Those delightful donuts sold out within two hours, made Delta Omega Alpha a wad of cash for its spring formal and kept us laughing at the memories for years to come! That’s what I think of when I think of Paczki 🙂
Sorority sisters Judy (left), Polish cousin Bozena (center) and Aundrea
Connie Adams offers this advice to packzi eaters: “Make sure you are close to home because they will put you right to sleep within 20 minutes after eating! Enjoy!”