Paczki, pronounced PUNCH-key, are Polish jelly-filled doughnuts, traditionally served in the weeks just prior to Lent. In Northeast Ohio, these delicious confections can be found in the bakeries of Slavic Village and other Eastern European food stores during the pre-Lenten season (mid-January to mid-March).
What are Paczki?:
Paczki are flattened sphere-shaped deep-fried dough pieces that are filled with lemon, plum, cherry, and other flavored jam.
Every eastern European household and bakery seems to have their own, slightly unique recipe. The paczki are finished with a sprinkling of powdered sugar. They may be iced or un-iced.
Note: the word "paczki" is the plural of "paczek" in Polish (literally "parcel" or "package"). In America, however, the singular form is very rarely used. You'll even hear non-Polish speakers say "paczkis." (That's not correct and marks you as a Polish food novice.)
Paczki can also be found in countries neighboring Poland. In Russia, they are called "ponchiki" or "pyshki." In Bulgaria, they are called "ponichki", and in the Ukraine, they are called "pampushky."
History of Paczki:
The tradition of serving paczki before Lent originated in Poland in the Middle Ages, during the reign of August III, who invited French cooks to work at his castle.
Paczki Day in Cleveland:
Paczki Day precedes the beginning of Lent, and the baking of paczki is traditionally a way to use up all of the fat, sugar, and fruit in the house--things that are forbidden during the strict Polish Lenten season.
In Poland, Paczki Day, the day when all of the last paczki are consumed, is the Thursday before Ash Wednesday. In Cleveland and the rest of the Midwest, Paczki Day is celebrated on Fat Tuesday (mardi gras), the day before Ash Wednesday.
Paczki are notoriously difficult to make and inexpensive to buy.
Even the most traditional Polish grandmothers of my acquaintance buy their paczki. However, if you'd to try your hand at making these pastries, this recipe is one of the best.
Buying Paczki in Cleveland:
In Cleveland, the bakeries and markets of Slavic Village all make paczki, beginning about three to four weeks prior to Lent. If you're interested in a quantity of paczki, especially on Paczki Day, it's wise to order in advance. Seven Roses Deli and and Europa Market are both good sources of paczki in Cleveland.