Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, evolved from the practice of shriving—purification through confession—just before Lent. Other names also apply. Mardi Gras is the culmination of several weeks of revelry. At Fasnacht, Pennsylvania Dutch children get up early to avoid being the last one out of bed. Adults and children eat fasnacht kuchen, traditionally a rectangular doughnut with a slit in the middle, raised without yeast. Pancakes are another traditional food on “Fat Tuesday,” baked to use up the cooking fats that are forbidden during Lent. To Americans of Polish descent, Pączki Day means eating pączki, special jelly-filled buns.
While the practice of Pączki Day is traditionally observed the day before Ash Wednesday in the United States, in Poland, pączki sales are the highest on Tlusty Czwartek, or “Fat Thursday.” (The Thursday before Ash Wednesday). This day marks the start of the final week of the pre-Lenten celebrations.
In Old Poland, the zapusty or “carnival season” reached its height during this period. Elegant balls were held in well-to-do manor houses, attended by young men, women and their parents. Country-folk, on the other hand, would make merry, drink, dance and flirt at the village inn. The rich would feast on fancy hors d’oeuvres, roast game, and fine wines. Peasants enjoyed their zimne noge (jellied pig’s knuckles), kiszka (blood and groat sausage), and kielbasa z kapusta (sausage and cabbage), which they washed down with beer and gorzalka, the least expensive vodka available.
Common to both groups, however, were pączki , which were consumed in huge quantities.
In Polish American neighborhoods across America, there is more than likely a local bakery that sells pączki . (And, by the way, feel free to drop samples off at the PAJ office for our annual Pączki Tasting. We’ll supply the coffee.)
If you don’t have a good old-fashioned bakery nearby, or you want to try your hand at making these treats, here are recipes and tips on pączki -making from Polish Heritage Cookery by our own Polish chef, Robert Strybel:
DOUGH. Dissolve 2 cakes crushed yeast in 1 c. lukewarm milk, sift in 1 c. flour, add 1 T. sugar, mix, cover, and let stand in warm place to rise.
Beat 8 egg yolks with 2/3 c. powdered sugar and 2 T. vanilla sugar until fluffy. Sift 21/2 c. flour into bowl, add sponge, egg mixture, and 2 T. grain alcohol or 3 T. rum, and knead well until dough is smooth and glossy. Gradually add 1 stick melted lukewarm butter and continue kneading dough until it no longer clings to hands and bowl and air blisters appear.
Cover with cloth and let rise in warm place until doubled. Punch dough down and let it rise again. Transfer dough to floured board, sprinkle top with flour, and roll out about 1/2” inch thick. With glass or biscuit-cutter, cut into rounds. Arrange on floured board and proceed in either of the following ways:
SMALL PĄCZKI. Place a spoonful of fruit filling (rose-hip preserves, cherry preserves, or other thick jam) off center on each round. Raise edges of dough and pinch together over filling, then roll between palms snowball fashion to form balls. Let rise in warm place until doubled.
LARGE PĄCZKI. Place a spoonful of fruit filling as above on only 1/2 dough rounds, cover each with another round, pinch edges together, and roll between palms to form a ball. Let rise until doubled in warm, draft-free place. Heat 11/2-2 lbs. lard in deep pan so pączki can float freely during frying. It is hot enough when a small piece of dough dropped into hot fat immediately floats up.
Fry pączki under cover without crowding several minutes until nicely browned on bottom, then turn over and fry uncovered on other side another 3 minutes or so. Note: If using electric fryer, set temp. at 360-375 degrees. If frying in stove-top pan and fat begins to burn, add several slices of peeled raw potato which will both lower the temperature and absorb the burnt flavor. Pączki may also be fried in oil, but lard produces the tastiest results. If you are cutting down on animal fats, you can compromise by using a lard and oil combination.
Transfer fried pączki to absorbent paper and set aside to cool. When cool, dust generously with powdered sugar, glaze or icing.
EXQUISITE OLD WARSAW PĄCZKI. This is an old recipe modified for those who prefer granulated, active dry yeast to a the more traditional compressed fresh yeast.
Beat 12 egg yolks with 1. t. salt at high speed until thick and lemony. Dissolve 2 packets of dry yeast in 1/4 c. 110-degree water. Separately, cream 1/3 c. room-temp. butter with 1/2 c. granulated sugar until fluffy, and beat into yeast mixture. Scald 1 c. whipping cream and cool to lukewarm.
Gradually add 2 c. flour and the cream, plus 3 T. French brandy, beating constantly. Then add 2 more c. flour and finally the yolk mixture. Knead well until air blisters appear. Cover with cloth and let stand in warm place until doubled. Punch down and let rise again. Roll out on floured board, sprinkling top of dough with a little flour, about 3/4 inch thick.
Cut into 2 inch rounds and top half of them with spoonful fruit filling. Cover with remaining rounds, pinch edges together with seal. (Note: If dough is dry, moisten edges with water before pinching together.) Place pączki on floured board, cover with cloth, and let raise until doubled. Fry as above, drain on absorbent paper, and when cool, dust with vanilla sugar or cover with glaze, preferably containing some grated orange ring.
OLD POLISH UNFILLED PĄCZKI. Add a pinch of saffron to 2 T. 190-proof grain alcohol and let stand several hours. In bowl, sift 1 c. flour and scald it 1 c. boiling milk, mixing with wooden spoon until smooth and lump-free. Set aside to cook. Meanwhile, mix 1 stick room-temp. butter, 1/3 c. honey, and 1 cake yeast. Stir in 21/2 c. flour, add 1 pinch salt, knead until smooth, cover with cloth, and allow to rise in warm place. When it has doubled, work in 1 T. rum, the strained saffron -flavored alcohol, and 1 T. finely chopped candied orange rind. Knead again briefly and set aside to rise once more.
Tear off walnut-sized pieces of dough and roll between floured palms into balls. Arrange on floured board, cover with cloth, and allow to rise until doubled. Fry in hot fat, drain in absorbent paper, and, when cool, dust with powered sugar or glaze as above.
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