All over the Midwest in communities where Polish Americans have chosen to settle, the days leading up to the start of Lent are celebrated with Paczki. Made from a rich dough that is then fried, the paczki that I know and love are filled with fruit or pastry creme and then covered in powdered sugar. Packzki, pronounced POHNCH-kee, is the plural word in Polish. A singular pastry would be a paczek. My favorite source for paczki is Roma Bakery in Lansing, Michigan. I was excited to go behind the scenes there last week and learn more about paczki and how they are made. Come along with me and learn more about this irresistible Fat Tuesday treat.
In Poland, paczki have been made since at least the middle ages. They were created to use up rich ingredients in the pantry before the fasting of Lent began and diets were more restricted. Traditionally paczki are enjoyed on Fat Thursday, the Thursday prior to the start of Lent. In America though, many people devour them up through Fat Tuesday. In the photo above, paczki dough has been allowed to rest and rise. Once ready, it is patted out into a large circle to fit on the orange form in the far right of the photo above.
The packzi dough, on its form, is placed in a large press. Once compressed, the traditional round shape of a paczki has been stamped out. Each disk of dough will result in three dozen paczki. The dough is very rich containing butter and three extra yolks for every one whole egg.
Once the paczki have been sized into individual pieces. they are peeled off the form and placed on a wire rack. The dough will rest there before it heads for the proofer. Roma Bakery has a special walk-in proofer where racks of dough can be rolled in on a cart and left in a controlled environment of optimal temperature and humidity. During the proofing process, the dough will have its final rise as the yeast causes it to increase in size.
Sostine Castriciano, co-owner of Roma Bakery with his wife Mena, fries the paczki dough. Working quickly, he turns each by hand using two wooden chopsticks. The unique recipe he developed, along with the high temperature that he fries the paczki at, create a light, non-greasy pastry. The week prior to Lent, Roma Bakery makes over 8,000 paczki. Some people drop in to get their favorite flavors. Others plan in advance and order large quantities for their co-workers or family to enjoy.
Once they reach that perfect color of brown, the paczki are off to be filled. Roma Bakery has a contraption that allows a uniform amount of filling to be injected into two paczki at a time. My Polish friend Anna has reminisced about the ones her grandmother used to make filled with rose hip or prune jam. Roma Bakery offers prune as well as apricot, strawberry, raspberry, cherry, apple, lemon, ricotta, chocolate and Bavarian creme. Next, the paczki are coated in powdered sugar and are now ready for purchase. Each family has its own traditions. Ffor some, the paczki are covered in a glaze or orange zest instead of powdered sugar. And others still, never fill their paczki. In the photo below, Mena Castriciano breaks open a fresh and still hot paczki. I’ve always loved the paczki from Roma Bakery but having one still so warm took it to a whole new level for me!
Paczki are a popular treat here in my area with all the bakeries creating their own versions and they can also be found in the grocery stores. For me though, Roma Bakery is my go to place for quality baked goods. I’ve heard that most people consider theirs to be the most authentic. It seems to be an early start to Lent this year and paczki season caught me off guard until a friend posted a picture of her son enjoying a paczki from Roma Bakery. She was kind to let me share it with you. You can see how much he enjoys it as well as the dusting of powdered sugar left behind. There is no way to sneak paczki! Everyone will know that you’ve had one!
Many cultures celebrate the days leading up to Lent with food traditions. When you think of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, you may also think of King Cakes. You may also see them during the Christmas season up through Epiphany. A King Cake will be decorated in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and yellow. A cinnamon roll style cake, it may also be filled with cream cheese, praline or strawberry. Each cake also has trinket, often of a little baby, hidden inside. The person who gets the slice with the trinket will be the King or Queen for the day and may be obligated to host next year’s King Cake Party. Below is a photo of Roma Bakery’s King Cake.
Maybe one of the reasons all the food from Roma Bakery is so delicious is because it is the product of a great love story. Sostine Castriciano had moved to Ontario, Canada when he was eighteen from the island of Sicily. His future wife, Mena, was born in Calabria in southern Italy and at twelve moved to Lansing. A few years later, a cousin arranged for them to meet in Ontario and this began a courtship between two countries and over four years. After getting married, they partnered with Mena’s father to purchase an Italian grocery store and added a bakery in 1969. Their bakery carries a full line of breads and European pastries and beautiful cakes. You can purchase meats, cheeses, olives, sandwiches and slices of pizza at the deli. Their grocery section carries a full line of European products as well as their home-made, fresh, frozen pastas and sauces.
Every year I look forward to paczki time and go through the agonizing decisions about what flavors to get. I always bring paczki to work on Fat Tuesday, stopping by Roma Bakery on the way in to the office. What do you do to celebrate the Mardi Gras season?
Photo credit for Boy with Paczki: Alyssa Baumann