Polish Paczki Dreams
The travels in my culinary anthropology series take me all over the map, but for this edition, I needed only to make the short drive from Asenzya headquarters into Milwaukee. It’s Paczki Day, a Midwest, Polish Fat Tuesday tradition.
Fat Tuesday, for all good Catholics, is a last hurrah before Lent begins the next day (Ash Wednesday). But in the Midwest, it is also known as Paczki Day. Thick, sweet and chewy paczki — butter and egg-laden, deep-fried, jelly-field, sugar-glazed Polish treats — are amazingly tender, simple and delicious.
Paczki are formed into thick, flattened discs and fried to a puffy texture with a deep golden color and a characteristic white ring around the middle from where the oil couldn’t make it during the frying process. On the surface, they may look like many other fried filled doughnuts (at least I thought so), like the German Berliner, the Pennsylvanian Dutch Fatnaughts or Bismarck, but the Paczki are chewier and much richer and decadent than an ordinary filled dessert.
The treats are traditionally filled with a simple prune paste, but over the years almost any fruit jelly or paste has seen its way into a paczki. Taken to extremes, the occasional booze filling has been used in packzki served at bars during Mardi Gras week.
A personal interjection: when I hear prune paste, I don’t get all that excited. Prunes have a bad image and need a good marketing agency; I think sun-dried plums sound much better. But that didn’t stop me from trying prune-filled paczki at National Bakery, a south-side Milwaukee gem located on 3200 S. 16th Street. It did the noble prune proud. Although a less-than-attractive brownish-purple color, the filling delivered where it counted—in taste. Decadent, rich, sweet and slightly savory, it was by far the best of the three flavors I tried.
For many years, the Paczki was almost exclusively a polish tradition. But over the years as more locals tried them, they became a proud Midwest staple that we are happy to wait in line for on a cold winter day. On this one day alone, National Bakery can sell as many as 36,000 paczki. This Milwaukee bread house will sell out of the local delicacy before the day is over.