Throughout Michigan today, thousands of people will be indulging in a rich, delicate fried pastry. It might be filled with jam or custard, covered in powdered sugar, or granulated sugar, or a glaze. It’s like a donut, but it’s lighter and the dough is less sweet.
Pączki are a peculiar treat. The name is difficult to pronounce (poohnch-KEY), they’re difficult to make, and they’re difficult to find outside of the Midwest.
The donut-like pastry (although never call a pączki a donut in front of a Midwesterner) originates from Eastern Europe, and came to Michigan thanks to the Polish population that began immigrating here in the 1880s. They settled largely in metro Detroit, forming the communities of Poletown and Hamtramck. Today, Michigan remains home to the third-largest Polish community in the country.
In Detroit, thousands of people still rush to Hamtramck on Pączki Day. Or, as Sandy Bakic of New Martha Washington Bakery describes it:
“Wall-to-wall customers, as well as workers, and everybody happy. They wait in line, they are patient, and we appreciate it because this is not a fast item to make. This is truly a labor of love food. And I just like how everybody is so happy, so polite that day. They’re just waiting for something that they wait for all year long! And I’m just glad we’re there to satisfy that little need.”
New Martha Washington Bakery opened on Joseph Campau Street in Hamtramck in 1925. Sandy’s parents, Petar and Ivanka Petrovic, have owned the bakery since 1973. But the traditional recipes are still the same.
“This pączki recipe has been handed down through the generations, since this bakery was opened, so there is no way the recipe is gonna get out of here,” says Sandy. Her father, 83 year-old Petar, is still the only person who mixes the dough.
Pączki are traditionally a pre-Lenten treat, created out of all the indulgences that were not allowed during the fast that the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches practice in the 40 days leading up to Easter. When you look at the ingredients — yeast, egg yolks, cream, fat — it’s easy to see why pączki were traditionally only made once a year.
“All the fat had to be used up in the cupboards so you don’t have them during Lent. And grandmas came up with these scrumptious little pastries,” says Sandy. “I love making them.”
Standing at the fryer, Sandy gently scoops floured balls of dough and places them in the oil with a satisfying sizzle. Once they're all in, she waits a moment before using long sticks to flip them over, occasionally poking at a few to make sure they don’t break and have oil pour in. Then she lowers a grate, submerging the pączki in the oil.
She says, “Everybody asks, ‘How long do they fry?’ And I don’t time it, I just eyeball it. I just recently started doing this [working the fryer]. Three, four years. Even though I started working here in ‘72.”
After nearly 50 years of working at the bakery, Sandy isn’t tired of pączki yet.
“Oh, sick of these things? Oh no! When I make these things, it makes me think of my grandma making them, and my mom," she says. "Well, my mom still comes in and makes them, but I’m talking about when I was in Europe.”
Pączki are filled with either custard or a jam. Traditional jam flavors include prune and rose, but fillings like raspberry and cherry are more common now. Although with 20 varieties this year, New Martha Washington has gone beyond the traditional.
“We have some exotic flavors,” says Sandy. “We’ve had guava, and that’s popular. We’ve had rosehip, [...] pineapple, chocolate Bavarian. Couple of years ago, we had chocolate buttercream.”
To produce all of those varieties and keep them as fresh as possible, Sandy and the other bakers work overtime in the days leading up to Pączki Day. They prep over the weekend, and then work from 5 a.m. Monday until the bakery closes at 9 p.m. Tuesday. But despite the exhaustion, Sandy says it's a lot of fun.
“On that day, everybody’s Polish. For one day! St. Patrick’s Day, everybody’s Irish. Well Pączki Day, everybody’s Polish. Even though we’re Serbian!” she says with a laugh.
So track down your local baker and enjoy your pączki, Michiganders, because they’ll soon be gone for another year.
Below is a recipe to try your hand at making your own pączki. Some advice from Sandy: “Take your time. It’s not something that you would do fast. And be gentle with the dough.”
12 egg yolks
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup whipping cream
2 packets dry, active yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1/3 cup butter, room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
4 cups flour, plus more for kneading
3 tablespoons brandy
Beat egg yolks with salt at high speed until thick and lemony. Scald whipping cream; cool to lukewarm. Dissolve 2 packets dry yeast in 1/4 cup warm water. Let stand for five minutes. Meanwhile, cream butter with granulated sugar until ﬂuffy.
Beat the butter and sugar into the yeast mixture. Gradually add 2 cups flour, the cream and the brandy, beating constantly. Add 2 more cups flour. Finally, beat in the yolk mixture.
Knead the dough well until air blisters appear. Cover with cloth and let stand in warm place until doubled in size, about 30 minutes. Punch down, and let rise again. Roll out on floured board, sprinkling top of dough with a little flour, about 1/2 inch thick. Cut into 3 inch rounds, place on floured board, cover with cloth, and let rise until doubled.
Fry in 350 degree vegetable oil until browned on one side then flip. Cook until brown. Drain on absorbent paper, and let cool. Use a piping bag to fill with jam or custard of your choice. Dust with confectioners sugar or cover with glaze, preferably containing some grated orange rind.