When it comes to Fat Tuesday—or Mardi Gras if you prefer—I am here for it. Although I now live in Albuquerque, growing up in Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans always makes me nostalgic for the season. Binging on sweets, pastries and all things good is a staple of Mardi Gras. King cake, beignets and candies aside, Fat Tuesday, for me, isn’t complete for me without paczki (pronounced poonch-key). So what is paczki?
Paczki are Polish doughnuts. Usually full of jelly or some kind of sweet filling, they are known to draw lines around the block this time of year. The recipe is similar to German, Jewish, and Italian filled doughnuts, but traditional paczki contain a splash of Polish vodka called Spiritus in addition to the flour, eggs, milk, sugar, yeast, and sometimes butter that make up the dough.
In this guide, we will explore all there is to know about this unique dessert. Read on to find out more.
If you live outside the Midwest (or other parts of the country with large Polish-American populations), paczki might be a new phenomenon to you—and you’re in for a real treat!
Paczki are traditional Fat Tuesday snacks that originated in Poland.
This donut was originally developed hundreds of years ago to use up all the rich ingredients that were considered off-limits during the fasting period of Lent, ingredients like butter, sugar, lard and milk.
Today, paczki are still traditional Fat Tuesday fare. You’ll find them filled with jellies and creams and dusted in sugar. Essentially, they are filled doughnuts, but a special, once-per-year kind of doughnut.
Outside of Poland, you’re likely to only find these treats on Fat Tuesday and the few days prior, which is what contributes to an annual frenzy and long lines at many a bakery—it’s also why many Midwesterners refer to Fat Tuesday as Paczki Day.
Most folks are looking to get that last good sugar fix before Lenten fasting begins, however, there is a bit of Polish superstition that might play into this as well. It’s been said that if you don’t indulge in paczki on Fat Tuesday, you could face bad luck for the rest of the year.
For a sweet lover like me, I don’t think that will be a problem. And if you’re worried about a bit of bad luck (or are just craving a good Fat Tuesday treat), you can make them yourself.
How to Make Paczki at Home
To make homemade paczki, you need a good recipe. This one is straight from my mom’s kitchen, and with a last name like Kaminski, you know it’s the real deal. You’ll need these ingredients to make paczki:
- 1-1/4 cups sugar, divided
- 1 package (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3-1/2 to 3-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup 2% milk
- 1/4 cup shortening
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 large egg, room temperature
- 1 cup seedless raspberry jam (or the jam of your choosing)
- Oil for deep frying (our Test Kitchen uses peanut oil)
Step 1: Stir Up the Paczki
In a large bowl, mix together a quarter cup of sugar with yeast, salt and two cups of flour. Meanwhile, heat the milk, shortening and water in a saucepan until it reaches about 110ºF—you don’t want to go past 115º F or you’ll kill the yeast.
Add the wet mixture to the dry and meat on medium speed with a good stand mixer for two minutes. Add the egg and beat on high for another two minutes. Then stir in enough remaining flour to form a soft dough. The dough will be sticky, but don’t worry—it’ll come together as you knead it.
Step 2: Knead the Dough and Let It Rest
After you’ve mixed up the dough, turn it out onto a well-floured surface. Knead until the dough is smooth, elastic and springs back when you touch it—about seven minutes. If you’re new to kneading, you can brush up on the technique by practicing with excess dough. It’s simple and you get a little workout, too.
When the dough reaches the right smooth texture, place it in a greased bowl and cover. Let the bread rise in a warm place until it doubles in size. This should take about an hour. If your home is a bit chilly the way mine in winter, you can use these tips to get a good rise even in the cold.
Step 3: Roll Out the Dough
After the dough has rested and risen, punch it down (that just means pushing out some of the air with your fingertips or knuckles). Place the dough onto a lightly floured surface and use a rolling pin to roll the dough out until it’s a half-inch thick. Then, using a three-inch biscuit cutter, cut out individual doughnuts.
Place the cutouts on a greased baking sheet, cover and let rise again until doubled. An hour should do it.
Step 4: Fry
Now comes the part where doughnuts become doughnuts, not just another bread. To fry paczki, heat oil in an electric skillet or deep fryer until 375ºF. Many people prefer to use peanut oil for frying, but you can check out these other oils suitable for deep frying. And if you don’t have an electric skillet or fryer, you can use a Dutch oven for frying, too. Just be sure to have a thermometer on hand to test the temperature.
Once your oil is at the right temperature, carefully place the dough (two or three at a time) in the oil and fry until golden brown—two to three minutes per side. Remove from the fryer. A tool like this skimmer makes it safe and easy. Drain the donuts on paper towels and let them cool slightly.
Step 5: Coat and Fill
After the paczki are cooled a bit (but not room temperature), roll them in the remaining cup of sugar.
Then, with a small knife, pierce a hole into the side of each doughnut. Fill a pastry bag fitted with a small tip with seedless jam or the filling of your choosing. If you want to go old school Polish, opt for prune. My mom always used raspberry jam, though. Then fill each paczki with jam. Once it’s all done, do your best not to inhale them all before sharing with friends and family.
A Few Paczki Questions Answered
If you didn’t grow up with paczki, you might still have a few questions. After a lifetime of eating these treats, you know I’ve got answers.
How do you pronounce paczki?
A: Paczki is pronounced poonch-key. Polish is a tough language!
What is the difference between a paczki and a doughnut?
Paczki is just a type of doughnut, the same way a cruller, beignet or cider doughnut is. Paczki are also Polish in origin and some recipes call for a splash of vodka—very Polish.
What can you fill paczki with and what’s the most popular flavor?
Paczki are a great canvas, and you can fill them with all kinds of flavors. A good jam is a great place to start. My mom always uses raspberry, but you can go for any fruit jam or marmalade. You can also fill paczki with pastry cream, lemon curd or—if you’re feeling traditional—a prune jam or poppy seed filling. Customize them however you like.
In larger cities in Poland, paczki are sold in numerous bakeries every day, but are much smaller than the ones made in America. Paczki is a specialty pastry reserved for once a year in honor of Fat Tuesday.
It is a Catholic day of celebration as it is the precursor to the Lenten season, and the last day to indulge in foods before the traditional 40-day period of fasting before Easter.
Polish immigrants brought those traditions with them to the United States, so places with strong Polish roots hold on to those important celebrations.