Pączki, a Polish treat made of deep fried dough stuffed with a sweet filling and covered with powdered sugar, is a popular Fat Tuesday snack. They’re fatty and decadent, making them ideal to eat before Lent, where many Christians fast for 40 days.
The ideal paczki are fluffy with a bit of a collapse, and made with grain alcohol to prevent any sogginess.
Outside of Poland, they can be found in Polish communities across the United States in the days leading up to Mardi Gras.
Here’s everything you need to know:
1. They’re Polish, but Made Sweet by the French
Paczki have been made in Poland since around the Middle Ages, though the dough was improved in the 1700s when there was more influence from French chefs, who helped make the dough lighter.
They were first made as a way to save food waste during Lent. Catholics needed a way to use up their sugar, butter, and eggs before fasting, so they created these heavy snacks. Originally, paczki were savory instead of sweet, filled with pork and fried in lard.
Like in many cultures, food was a sign of class. While peasants ate lots of cabbage, the wealthy feasted on game. Paczki though, were loved by all and were seen as a uniting force between classes in ancient Poland.
The French influence came from King August III, who had hired French chefs. They not only improved the dough, but are credited with shifting paczkis to a sweet dessert.
2. They’re Filled With the Best, Most Fattening Ingredients
Paczki are not meant for anyone on a diet. They’re made with lots of butter, milk, flour, eggs, and sugar, then filled with custard or sweet jelly and topped with powdered sugar or glazed. Plum and rose jam are the most traditional fillings, but Polish bakeries now serve paczki with all sorts of jellies and custards.
While it’s tempting to compare paczki to jelly doughnuts, don’t. They’re much yeastier and have more eggs, so they have a richer and more savory flavor. Grain alcohol is used in the dough, another differentiating factor. This helps ensure the dough doesn’t get too greasy.
According to this article from the Detroit Free Press, one paczki can contain as many as 400 calories and 20 grams of fat.
A bright stripe around the outside of the paczki is supposed to show that the dough was fried in fresh oil.
3. They’re Pronounced POONCH-key
Paczki, pronounced POONCH-key, is actually plural. The singular is paczek, pronounced Pon-check. The name translates to “little package.”
The word paczek comes from the Polish work pąk, which means “bud.” The word “pąk” comes from the Proto-Slavic word pǫkъ, which was used to refer to anything round or bulging. Thus, a round, bulging pastry is called paczek. The term has been adapted for other Slavic languages too. They’re called ponchik in Russian, ponchyk in Ukrainian, and ponichka in Bulgarian.
4. They’re Eaten on Fat Tuesday in America, but on Fat Thursday in Poland
Fat Tuesday is known as the day to splurge before Lent, and in Polish communities across North America that’s when paczki are mainly consumed. But in Poland, they’re eaten on Fat Thursday, the last Thursday before Lent, up until Ash Wednesday.
Because the original point of paczki was to use up ingredients before Lent, having almost a week to eat them gave people more time to use up their eggs and milk.
Outside of Poland, Chicago, Detroit, Toledo, Buffalo, Grand Rapids, Milwaukee, and Windsor have some of the largest Polish communities, and eat paczki widely around Fat Tuesday.
5. They Have Their Own Day, and It’s Huge in the United States
Paczki Day is held on the same day as Fat Tuesday, the Tuesday before Lent. In Chicago and other cities with large Polish populations, Paczki Day is celebrated on both the Thursday and Tuesday before Lent.
In these cities, Paczki Day celebrations can be massive. The Paczki Day Parade outside of Detroit, for example, has gained a huge following over the years. In Detroit and Chicago, Polish bakeries expect long lines on Paczki Day, and bake tens of thousands of paczki to meet demand.
In Evanston, Illinois, a paczki eating contest has been held since 2010, and Buffalo, New York has one of the largest Fat Thursday events outside of Poland. Hamtramk, Michigan also holds and eating contest. A man from the area holds the record with 23 pastries eaten in 15 minutes. There was even a movie made about paczki making in Ohio.
Paczki Day celebrations are also popular in Milwaukee Northcentral and Southeastern Wisconsin, Northwest Indiana, Toledo, Greater Cincinnati, Greater Cleveland, Philadelphia, Northern and Central New Jersey, Central Connecticut, and Western Massachusetts.