|Photo by Brian Mulloy|
What's Paczki Day? Well, it's known as Fat Tuesday or Mardis Gras everywhere else. Traditionally, Fat Tuesday is the last day before Ash Wednesday when Lent's fasting begins, so Polish tradition called for one last hurrah of eating bad things before Lent began. In Poland, they actually eat paczki on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, but Polish immigrants to the U.S. often baked and ate the treats on Fat Tuesday, making the holiday also known as Paczki Day in heavily Polish regions like Detroit and Chicago. In Detroit and especially its neighboring city of Hamtramck, it has become the Polish equivalent of St. Patrick's Day.
So what's a paczki? Technically, "pączki" is the plural of "pączek," but most Americans just call it a paczki. Paczki are a deep-fried dough ball glazed or powdered with sugar, often served with a jelly filling. They are kind of like jelly donuts, but they are far superior. Authentic paczki have dough made with eggs and have a lighter texture similar to brioche or challah bread.
How do you pronounce paczki? Since Polish letters are not always pronounced in similar ways to English or Romance languages, the answer might not be intuitive to native English speakers. I'm not sure if it's the result of different Polish dialects or Americans butchering the Polish language, but I've heard three primary pronunciations in the U.S.: 1) Poanch-key; 2) Poonch-Key; and 3) Punch-key. I interchange "poanch-key" and "poonch-key."
This year, I decided that it had been too long since I had a paczki, so I did some research and found three possible sources in the D.C. area: 1) Giant Supermarkets; 2) the Kosciuszko Foundation's Center near Dupont Circle; and 3) the Kielbasa Factory in Rockville, MD.
A couple weeks before Lent, my wife found a box of paczki at a Giant. She brought home the red and white box with "Pączki" displayed in white letters on a red background. After opening the box, I found what appeared to be powdered jelly donuts. These did not look like paczki.
I gave them a shot though, and they disappointed. They were dry and dense and just tasted wrong. Plus, the filling was custard. I have heard custard is an acceptable filling, but I prefer a berry filling. Regardless, even the best berry filling would not have saved these so-called "pączki" from their unauthentic taste.
|U.S. and Polish flags flying outside the Kosciuszko Foundation|
Luckily, the two women running the sale were kind and spoke English (and Polish!), and the paczki were ready for me to pick up. The sale was very informal. There were several boxes of paczki, both glazed and powdered sugar, on the table, and they looked tremendous. I paid for the three I ordered and hurried home to try one.
|Kosciuszko Foundation paczki|
|Who wants some post-yoga paczki?|
Luckily, the roads were mostly clear. My daughters and I arrived shortly after they opened, so I decided to look around before picking up my paczki. The store has many Polish delicacies, but I wanted fresh kielbasa and pierogi. Their freezer section has many flavors of pierogi, so I went a little overboard buying six dozen. I also got one pound of smoked kielbasa and one pound of fresh kielbasa...it was FAT Tuesday after all.
The two women working in the store were very friendly. They answered my questions about the different types of kielbasa and gave my daughters lollipops. Their hospitality made me feel like I was visiting one of my Polish grandmas or aunts. Although I had only pre-ordered a half dozen, they allowed me to buy three more for some friends.
As I was waiting in the paczki line, the young woman in front of me noticed my University of Michigan hat and asked if I was from Michigan. We both said where we were from the Detroit area, and I think we both looked as excited as kids on Christmas morning. She mentioned that she had to go here if she couldn't be in Hamtramck.
After I paid for my Polish feast, I turned around and saw a man in a Michigan State sweatshirt talking to a woman and her children. I made a comment about everyone being from Michigan, and the woman replied that she was too. Seeing this many people from my home state at a store in Maryland confirmed that this place was authentic.
Even though the Kielbasa Factory does not bake the paczki themselves, I did overhear one of the women tell another customer that they were from a Polish bakery. I could tell they were authentic just by looking at them. After tasting one, I knew that, like the Kosciuszko Foundation's paczki, these were the real deal. They were a little denser and less airy, but they too reminded me of the paczki back home.
|Kielbasa Factory Paczki|
After I wrote this article, I found another source of paczki near D.C. when I took a visit to Baltimore's Little Poland. I had not yet watched The Wire, so I was surprised by the long Polish immigrant history in Baltimore. Little Poland offers excellent Polish food, and the paczki at Krakus Deli rival the paczki at the Kosciuszko Foundation and the Kielbasa factory.