Pączki are deep-fried pieces of dough shaped into flattened spheres and filled with confiture or other sweet filling. Pączki are usually covered with powdered sugar, icing, glaze or bits of dried orange zest. A small amount of grain alcohol (traditionally, Spiritus) is added to the dough before cooking; as it evaporates, it prevents the absorption of oil deep into the dough. The common opinion is that the ideal pączek is fluffy and at the same time a bit collapsed, with a bright stripe around – it is supposed to guarantee that the dough was fried in fresh oil.
Although they look like German berliners, North American bismarcks or jelly doughnuts, pączki are made from especially rich dough containing eggs, fats, sugar, yeast and sometimes milk. They feature a variety of fruit and creme fillings and can be glazed, or covered with granulated or powdered sugar. Powidl (stewed plum jam) and wild rose hip jam are traditional fillings, but many others are used as well, including strawberry, Bavarian cream, blueberry, custard, raspberry, and apple.
Pączki have been known in Poland at least since the Middle Ages. Jędrzej Kitowicz has described that during the reign of August III, under the influence of French cooks who came to Poland, pączki dough was improved, so that pączki became lighter, spongier, and more resilient.
Assorted pączki commercially produced near Detroit
The Polish word pączek [ˈpɔntʂɛk] (plural: pączki [ˈpɔntʂkʲi]) is a diminutive of the Polish word pąk [ˈpɔŋk] "bud". The latter derives from Proto-Slavic *pǫkъ, which may have referred to anything that is round, bulging and about to burst (compare Proto-Slavic *pǫkti "to swell, burst"), possibly of ultimately onomatopoeic origin. From Polish the word has been borrowed into several other Slavic languages, where the respective loanwords (ponchik[a], ponchyk[b] or ponichka[c]) refer to a similar ball-shaped pastry.
English speakers typically use the plural form of the Polish word in both singular and plural. They pronounce it as /, -, -, -/[d] (the last being closest to the Polish pronunciation) and often write it as "paczki", i.e., without the ogonek (hook-shaped diacritic). This should not be confused with the unrelated Polish word paczki [ˈpatʂkʲi], which is the plural form of paczka [ˈpatʂka] "package".
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In Poland, pączki are eaten especially on Fat Thursday (Tłusty Czwartek), the last Thursday prior to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. The traditional reason for making pączki 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 North America, particularly the large Polish communities of Chicago, Detroit, and other large cities across the Midwest and Northeast, Paczki Day is celebrated annually by immigrants and locals alike. The date of this observance merges with that of pre-Lenten traditions of other immigrants (e.g., Pancake Day, Mardi Gras) on Fat Tuesday. With its sizable Polish population, Chicago celebrates the festival on both Fat Thursday and Fat Tuesday; pączki are also often eaten on Casimir Pulaski Day. In Buffalo, Toledo, Cleveland, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Milwaukee, South Bend, and Windsor, Pączki Day is celebrated on Fat Tuesday.
The Pączki Day celebrations in some areas are even larger than many celebrations for St. Patrick's Day. In Hamtramck, Michigan, an enclave of Detroit, there is an annual Pączki Day (Shrove Tuesday) Parade, which has gained a devoted following. Throughout the Metro Detroit area, it is so widespread that many bakeries attract lines of customers for pączki on Pączki Day.
In some areas, Pączki Day is celebrated with pączki-eating contests. The contest in Evanston, Illinois, started in 2010, and is held on the weekend before Fat Tuesday, while Hamtramck's contest is held on the holiday.
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These pastries have become popular in the United States as a result of Polish immigrants and marketing by the bakery industry. Sold in bakeries mainly on both Fat Tuesday and Fat Thursday throughout Chicago, they are particularly popular in areas where there is a large concentration of Polish immigrants: Milwaukee Northcentral and Southeastern Wisconsin, Chicago and Northern Illinois, Northwest Indiana, the Greater Detroit and Mid Michigan areas, Toledo, Greater Cincinnati, Greater Cleveland, Philadelphia, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Northern and Central New Jersey, Central Connecticut, Western Massachusetts and greater Chicopee. The Polish community in Buffalo has probably one of the largest Fat Thursday events outside of Poland, which is run in cooperation with the monthly Polish Happy Hour Buffalo event.
Whether you celebrate Paczki day on Fat Thursday or Fat Tuesday, or both, area bakeries are ready with thousands of the filled treats.