Paczki are a delicious treat most often indulged in on Fat Tuesday, the day before the Lenten season begins. Finely textured sweet bread, baked to golden perfection, filled with creamy lemon custard and rolled in a generous coating of lemon glaze. These baked lemon doughnuts are so good that you won’t even miss the extra calories imparted by their fried cousins.
As much as I love living in the country, spending my formative years living in and around a big city had distinct advantages. Being obsessed with food from an early age, I loved the convenience of being able to hop a bus to ethnically concentrated neighborhoods in search of real, authentic food. One of my favorite destinations was a short 20 minute drive to what was then a predominately Polish area called Hamtramck. A few friends and I would often take advantage of “Teacher Work Days” off of school, and zip down to the Polish Village Cafe to stuff ourselves with more pierogi, golabki, and kielbasa than any teenagers had a right to consume in one sitting.
It was during one of these foodie jaunts that we decided to walk off all of the food before heading home. After a walking a few blocks, we noticed a large line snaked around the block leading to New Palace Bakery. Intrigued, we went to investigate what could possibly be coming out of a bakery that would inspire devoted patrons to line up down the block to acquire. As luck would have it, we happened upon New Palace Bakery the day before Fat Tuesday—otherwise known as Paczki Day! How could we have forgotten? Paczki Day is practically a government sanctioned holiday in that part of our state.
Of course we wasted no time at all running to the end of the line to wait for a chance to purchase paczki of our own. I intentionally use the term chance, because even though they make tens of thousands of paczki at New Palace Bakery in preparation for Fat Tuesday, they sell out quickly every year.
Those of those of us whom are intimately acquainted with the delicious wonder that is the paczki can totally understand why the finest Polish bakery in town would have a line of customers awaiting the pastries.
Polish immigrants traditionally made paczki to use up the lard, sugar, and eggs before the Lenten season. Even though they’re full of rich ingredients, paczki are surprisingly light, fried doughnut-like treats that are filled with a variety of flavored custards or jams. Once filled, the paczki then either dusted with powdered sugar, or bathed in a sugary glaze. Popular flavors include prune, raspberry, blueberry, vanilla custard, and lemon custard.
Of course we tried them all. You know…for Science.
Afterward, I brought home a dozen paczki to share with my family–because I was a nice kid. Well, that and the fact that I didn’t exactly tell my mother where we were heading for lunch that day, so I figured a paczki or two as a bribe might keep me from being grounded for life. Which they did.
To this day, I’m convinced that somewhere my Polish great-grandmother was smiling but she didn’t know why. After the initial happenstance visit, I made an annual tradition of skipping the grocery store variety paczki in favor of getting the real deal at New Village Bakery.
Now that more than 250 miles separates me from my favorite Polish bakery, I’ve been attempting to make paczki at home…for years! Yep…years!
So far, I’ve been unable to create a fried version of the nostalgic favorite that doesn’t weigh approximately 12 pounds. I’m not afraid of hot oil, but for some reason frying doughnuts and I don’t get along. One year, after 2 dozen failed attempts that drove me to the brink of sheer desperation, I tossed the risen balls of dough onto a cookie sheet and shoved them into the oven just to see what would happen.
Like, literally threw and shoved the balls of dough into the oven. It was not one of my prouder kitchen moments.
Since I’d already made the custard and glaze, I went ahead and filled the baked doughnut-ish balls with the custard, and rolled them in glaze. Seething with disgust, I left the paczki on the counter to dry overnight while I went to bed. Honestly, it was all I could do not to chuck the whole lot of them into the trash and give up on paczki forever!
I can get a little (internally) dramatic when I’m working on a particularly challenging recipe.
Thankfully, a cooler head prevailed in the morning. I picked up one of the finished baked paczki and took a bite. I may or may not have glared at it first, but I took a bite nonetheless.
Then I laughed at my self for having such a hissy fit because it was so good! The baked paczki were softer and lighter than their fried cousins. The lemony filling was every bit as tart and creamy as it should be, and the tangy glaze flaked off like sugary shale with every bite.
In short–they were perfect!
Sure, fried paczki are more authentic, but these baked lemon doughnuts are a great, lighter substitute.
They’re definitely worth every last bit of effort to nail down the recipe.