It’s almost upon us … Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, whatever you call it. In my family, it’s Paczki Day pure and simple. My family is Polish, Chicago South Side Polish to be exact, and my Dad once described Paczki Day “in the old neighborhood” as something that sounded a lot like Halloween to my little Arizona ears. He and his buddies would go door-to-door yelling “Happy Paczki Day!” and getting doughnuts in return. Sounded like heaven to me. My mother who grew up a few blocks away says this is bullshit, much like when he told me Dick Butkus was my godfather. But I choose to believe it’s true because I adore the idea of going door-to-door for doughnuts.
We didn’t see many paczki in Phoenix but in Chicago, let me tell you this day is a major EVENT. This is a city where Casmir Pulaski, the Polish-American war hero, has his own holiday so you better believe Paczki Day is a big deal. In fact, it’s an annual news event with TV reporters jostling amongst throngs of eager customers in the wee hours at traditional Polish bakeries around town.
Somehow, despite my heritage, I have never made these things. This struck me as odd so this year I decided to throw my polish-ness into the ring and give it a whirl. I did some research with a definite result in mind – something rich and buttery with a really good filling – nothing pasty, rubbery or fakey. I looked both online and in cookbooks and discovered recipes that were all over the board and even a few that were downright odd. Why would I beat the eggs, and then the butter and THEN the dough, all separately? The pastry chef in me was crying out in frustration … WTF?
Confusion abounded so it was time to get back to the roots of the recipe. If I could better understand from whence it came perhaps I could come up with a better recipe, or so my theory went. Traditionally, the day before Ash Wednesday was the day to prepare for Lent, a time of sacrifice. It was the time to clean the house of all excess lard, butter, sugar, eggs and fruit because they were forbidden during Lent and it was time to get ready for 40 days of good ‘ol Catholic sacrifice leading up to Easter Sunday. Paczki were made of a very rich dough and filling which neatly used up all these wonderful things. You could get rid of everything in one delicious shot, with typical Polish efficiency.
As I looked at recipe after recipe, none were really speaking to me but they all started to share a common thread … they looked similar to brioche. So why couldn’t I take the best of what I was finding and use a brioche technique where a rich dough is made and then butter is beaten and blended into it? Well, why not? I knew that would work perfectly. Game on.
You know what? They turned out beautifully on the first try just like I knew they would. The only challenge I had was monitoring the oil on my ancient stove and maintaining a steady 375°F which is important. Too high and the outside gets too dark with a doughy middle. Too low and the dough ends up heavy, greasy and leaden. Ugh. It takes a sharp eye and some patience, raising and lowering the heat as needed and absolutely making sure not to add a fresh batch until that mark is reached.
The dough traditionally contains a small amount of alcohol said to evaporate during frying, which prevents the absorption of excess oil. I’m not so sure about that but I added some dark rum anyway, mainly for flavor, as I was fresh out of the traditional grain alcohol. Must of used it all up in that last batch of jungle juice.
As far as fillings go, cream filled/chocolate glazed are my hands-down favorite followed closely by apricot and then plum. Who am I kidding, I will eat any kind of paczki but do reach for those first. I hear a rose filling is very traditional but I have yet to try one of those. Sounds interesting, no? For this round I made the vanilla cream/chocolate dipped variety as well as an apricot filling made by stewing dried apricots in water and a little orange juice and sugar until tender then pureeing until smooth. A quick powdered sugar glaze with a little orange zest finished them off beautifully. I haven’t yet posted my pastry cream recipe but use your favorite, or this one will do. Yes, the homemade fillings are wonderful and well worth the effort if you’re going to go to all this trouble anyway. Leave the canned fillings to the cheapo hack bakeries.
These were so unbelievably good that I felt the smiles of all my Polish grandmothers upon me, right to my toes. It was a powerful moment sitting at the end of my dining room table with a sheet pan full of 20 or so fresh paczki in front of me. I made a dinner out of them and thoroughly enjoyed every single minute. I may have even gotten a little nostalgic imagining how much my family, far away in Phoenix, would have gotten a kick out of these. And perhaps I shed a tiny tear remembering a story my Mom told me once of her very Polish grandmother, an immigrant, had pans of rising paczki covering every available surface in their basement. Yes indeed, this is a project and a big one at that but the rewards are worth every ounce of effort. Ten times over. The biggest disappointment had nothing to do with the paczki themselves but the crap photos I took. They just do not do them justice.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: TREMENDOUS. I can’t even think of a better word to describe the satisfaction of making these babies. I was channeling some serious inner buśka and loved every minute of it. The intense level of satisfaction with this one was something I haven’t experienced in my baking in quite a long time. I was pleased as punch. This one was personal.
Makes about 20 paczki with a 3” cutter
For the dough:
2 ¼ teaspoons active dry yeast (1 package)
2 Tablespoons warm water (warm to the touch, about 110°F)
½ cup warm whole milk (warm to the touch, about 110°F)
¼ cup sugar
2 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon dark rum
½ teaspoon kosher salt
6 egg large yolks
4 Tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1” cubes
vegetable oil for frying
vanilla pastry cream (or your favorite filling)
For the chocolate glaze:
3 Tablespoons unsweetened Dutch process cocoa powder
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 cup powdered sugar
2-3 Tablespoons hot water
- For the dough: In the bowl of a standing mixer, dissolve the yeast in the 2 Tablespoons warm water. Let sit 5 minutes until foamy. (If the yeast doesn’t foam or show any signs of activity it may be dead. Best bet is to toss and start with fresh yeast or suffer possible disappointments.)
- To this mixture, add the warm milk, sugar, flour, dark rum, salt and egg yolks.
- With the dough hook attachment, mix the dough on medium speed until combined then increase the speed to medium-high and beat for 3-4 minutes to develop the gluten.
- Turn the speed down to medium low and add the butter cubes, one at a time, and mix until the butter is fully incorporated and the dough is smooth and silky.
- 1st rise: Cover the dough and let rise in a warm (but not too warm or the butter will melt out of the dough) until doubled in bulk, about 1- 1 ½ hours.
- Shaping: Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and divide in half. Keep second half covered.
- Roll the dough out about ¾” thick and using a 3” round cutter, cut out as many rounds as possible.
- Transfer rounds to a parchment lined sheet pan and continue with the remaining dough, rerolling any scraps. You should have about 20 rounds total.
- 2nd rise: Cover and let the round rise until puffy and doubled, about 1 hour.
- To fry: heat at least 2” of vegetable oil in a heavy duty skillet or Dutch oven to 375°F (use a deep fry thermometer to monitor)
- Meanwhile, place a cooling rack in a sheet pan for draining and set aside until needed.
- Once the oil reaches the correct temperature, carefully slide 3-4 dough rounds into the oil and let fry until golden brown.
- Flip and do the same on the other side, carefully monitoring the temperature to maintain 375°F.
- With a spider or slotted spoon, remove the golden doughnut to a wire rack placed over a sheet pan to drain and continue with the remaining dough rounds. Be sure to maintain 375°F, lowering and increasing the heat as necessary.
- To fill: place the pastry cream (or desired filling) in a pastry bag fitted with a ½” round tip and set aside.
- With a chopstick, poke a hole in the side of each fried doughnut.
- Place the pastry tip in the hole and fill each doughnut with the pastry cream.
- For the glaze: combine all the ingredients in a medium bowl (wide enough to fit the top of a paczki) and whisk until smooth. Add more hot water if needed to thin the glaze to a smooth, pourable consistency.
- To glaze: firmly hold the sides of a filled paczki and give it a good dunk in the glaze.
- Lift the paczki straight up out of the glaze and let the excess drip back into the bowl.
- Give the paczki a quick shake to remove any excess, then a quick flip and place back on the rack to allow the glaze to set.
- Paczki are best eaten the day they are made. No question. If you happen to have any leftovers either store tightly wrapped OR if your filling has eggs/dairy such as pastry cream, you must refrigerate tightly wrapped.