Grandma Brodacki’s Recipes: Pączki a.k.a. Poonchkis

Paczki

It’s Pączki Day in Chicago, celebrating Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras and marking the beginning of Lent in the Catholic tradition. I was off with friends to the nearest bakery this morning to pick up my order of the jelly-filled donuts, after watching a news report on the pączki mania that seems to be occurring with increased intensity this year in Rust Belt cities and towns with a sizeable Polish population.

Everybody who does not speak Polish hears or reads this odd word, “pączki,” and seems to come up with the same American pronunciation, “poonchki.” Not so awful really, given the lack of the French-sounding letter “ą” in the English alphabet. The word, however, is already plural (sort of like the old-fashioned plurals cacti and hippopotami). Polish people are always amused by the American idea that there can be such a word as pączkis. Another French connection is the resemblance of pączki to the New Orleans favorite, the beignet, another deep-fried pastry but without the gooey filling.

One reporter this morning interviewed two men who said they were on pączki detail because the woman in the office who usually picks them up had heart surgery. That ought to reinforce the notion that the deep-fried treats are a “heart attack dusted with powdered sugar.” In the strictest Polish tradition, however, pączki are eaten in such quantities once a year on Mardi Gras as one last caloric indulgence before the Lenten fast. In America, of course, these little treats have grown to supersize and are available in bakeries year-round.

We watched two slender young women at the next table at Dinkel’s Bakery on Lincoln Avenue as one of them ate a fresh strawberry pączek that looked more like a small layer cake. Her grandmother from Poland always called them “poonchkis,” she asserted as we debated the pronunciation of these delights.

When I was a little guy, Grandma, or Busia (“Boosha”) as I called her, still made pączki on the wood stove on our farm in Michigan. As I recall, she sometimes tossed them into the hot fat and served them to me warm without the jam filling. Most jelly donuts are stuffed with jelly after they are fried. Nobody ever wrote down Grandma’s recipe for pączki, but her procedure was very similar to the traditional methods described in old Polish cookbooks. Here is how she did it:

Pączki Busia Brodacki Style

•1 1/2 cups warm milk (no warmer than 110 degrees)
•2 packages active dry yeast
•1/2 cup sugar
•4 ounces (1 stick) room-temperature butter
•1 large room-temperature egg
•3 large room-temperature egg yolks
•1 tablespoon brandy or rum
•1 teaspoon salt
•4 1/2 to 5 cups all-purpose flour
•1 gallon oil for deep frying
•Powdered sugar
•Fruit jellies for filling

Preparation:

Add yeast to warm milk and dissolve in glass measuring cup. In a large bowl, cream together sugar and butter until fluffy. Beat in eggs, brandy, and salt.

Add 4 1/2 cups flour alternately with the milk-yeast mixture and beat with a wooden spoon until smooth. (Make sure to wear short sleeves so the kids can watch your arms jiggle.) Dough will be slack. If too soft, add up to 1/2 cup flour.

Place dough in a greased bowl. Cover and let rise until doubled in bulk, anywhere from 1 to 2 1/2 hours. Punch down and let rise again.

Turn dough out onto lightly floured surface. Pat or roll to 1/2-inch thickness. Cut into squares, which can then be rounded or use a round cutter. Place on a warm baking sheet or other flour-dusted surface. Cover and let rounds rise until doubled in bulk, 30 minutes or longer.

Heat oil to 350 degrees in a large kettle or deep skillet. Place pączki top-side down (the dry side) in the oil a few at a time and fry 2 to 3 minutes or until bottom is golden brown. Flip them over and fry another 1 to 2 minutes or until golden brown. Make sure the oil doesn’t get too hot so the exterior doesn’t brown before the interior is done. Test a cool one to make sure it’s cooked through. Adjust cooking time and oil heat accordingly.

Drain pączki on brown paper bags. Poke a hole in the side of the pączki and, using a pastry bag or other device, squeeze in a dollop of fruit flavored jam or custard filling, and sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Pączki need to be eaten fresh. Once Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, they should all be gone. I remember when my mother worked at the New Palace Bakery in then very Polish Hamtramck, Michigan. She would bring home baked goods that were too old to sell. We considered ourselves pretty lucky–all that bread and cake! But the day-old pączki were pretty bad. I was told, however, to quit complaining and be grateful. I am grateful to this day, and the pączki at Dinkel’s were superb.

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