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Fat Thursday or Fat Tuesday? It's all Paczki

Dateline: Chicago, Illinois

By Tracy L. Ziemer
Thursday, February 23, 2006

the daily dishWith almost 1 million residents of Polish descent, four Polish newspapers, and three Polish radio stations, Chicago clearly likes to get its kuchnia polska (Polish cuisine) on. This time of year, that means one thing: Paczki Fever.

Paczki Day (pronounced "POONCH-key") is a time to indulge in the yeasty fruit- or custard-filled Polish doughnut known as paczki before Lent begins. Celebrated in Poland and by some Polish immigrants on the Thursday before Lent or Tlusty czwartek (Fat Thursday), Paczki Day also is observed in the States on the Tuesday before Lent — i.e. Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras. "Observing" loosely translates to: Devouring the deep-fried pastry, preferably much of it.

"Lent was a time to avoid meat, and Fat Thursday was a time to use up all perishable animal fats before the Lenten season," explains Jan Lorys, director of the Chicago-based Polish Museum of America. Since paczki are made with butter, eggs, and milk, and traditionally fried in animal lard, the path to Paczki Day was forged.

The grand dame of Chicago paczki is Bogna Iwanowska-Solak, who owns Oak Mill Bakery with her husband Walter. With five Chicago locations, Oak Mill will churn out 100,000 paczki this year after selling just two dozen 15 years ago, says Solak.

Clearly, Solak knows her paczki. She shares some advice: "When you bite into them, they're supposed to bounce back — not mush down," she says. Packzi that are too squishy have too much oil and won't taste right.

"It's a good idea to use three kinds of fat," she suggests. "In the old recipes, we would use butter, lard, and oil. Each fat gave something different. Butter gave good taste; animal fat gave good texture; and oil gave moisture." Today Oak Mill uses vegetable shortening instead of lard.

Another tip? "Add a little rum to the dough or spirytus, which is 95 percent alcohol," Solak says. "The alcohol makes it easier to digest the dough. You also can take a fresh potato, cut it in half, and put it in the oil. This will keep the oil from burning."

Back in the day, Oak Mill used butter imported from Poland ("Happy cows make good milk and butter," she insists) but delivery became too inconsistent. She still buys prune and rosehip fillings — the most traditional for paczki — from Poland, where they hand grind the rose petals with sugar before adding it to marmalade.

That could explain why they taste so darn good.

Get in line, Chicago. It's that time of year.

— Tracy Ziemer

PACZKI HOTSPOTS IN CHICAGO:
Oak Mill Bakery: (See Web site or call for locations; 773-788-9800; www.oakmillbakery.com)

Gorski's Bakery & Deli: Try the excellent makowiec (poppyseed cake) or a cream-filled paczki tinged with Advocaat liqueur. Gorski's sells 15,000 paczki on Fat Thursday and about 6,700 on Fat Tuesday, says manager Wanda Krolikowski. (2835-37 N. Central Ave., Chicago; 773-736-0805)

Pasieka Bakery: Located in the Polish neighborhood of Jackowo, Pasieka peddles about 200 paczki daily, says manager Mary Bobek, but that number explodes to 20,000 on Fat Thursday. (3056 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago; 773-278-5190)

Alliance Bakery & Cafe: 10,000 paczki are sold on Fat Tuesday at this Wicker Park bakery named in honor of the Polish National Alliance, says owner Mikky Wright. Sample the chunky apple paczki, served sandwich style for an American take on the Polish classic. (1736 W. Division St., Chicago; 773-278-0366; www.alliance-bakery.com)

Alliance Bakery's Paczki Recipe*
This recipe has been used at the Alliance Bakery & Cafe for every Paczki Day since 1927. It is designed for their commercial kitchen but we've added approximate measures for home cooks.

ingredients:
1 quart water
5 ounces yeast
4.5 pounds patent flour (a fine grade of wheat flour available at baking and gourmet stores)
4 ounces dry milk powder
10 ounces all-purpose shortening
1.5 ounces salt
10 ounces whole eggs (about five large eggs)
8 ounces egg yolks (about 12 large eggs yolks)
1 ounce vanilla extract
1 ounce orange extract
1 ounce lemon extract
Additional shortening for frying

preparation:
Combine water and 4 ounces of yeast. Then add flour, dry milk, shortening, salt, whole eggs and the vanilla, orange, and lemon extracts. Once combined, mix in remaining 1 ounce of yeast and 8 ounces of egg yolks.

Let the dough rise at room temperature, in a greased bowl covered with plastic wrap for approximately one hour, until doubled in size. Then roll the dough into 4-ounce balls (about the size of a plum) and let them rise again.

Heat shortening for frying until it reaches 375 degrees. Once the balls of dough have risen, deep fry them in oil for approximately 4 to 6 minutes, until they are a medium golden brown.

Drain the paczki. Once cool, fill with custard or fruit fillings, such as cherry, blueberry, apple, pineapple, raspberry, or prune. Top with glaze or sugar.

yield: 30 paczki

*Please note: Epicurious is not responsible for chef recipes. This recipe has not been tested or approved by Epicurious.

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