Local stories, events, and Catholic inspiration in northeast Wisconsin

A last bite before Lent begins

Sweet paczki tradition came via Poland, with a French touch

By Patricia Kasten | On Mission

Homemade raspberry filled paczki are a pre-Lenten treat around the country, but a tradition originally from Poland. Note the middle lighter band on the pastry, which indicates the use of fresh frying oil.

Taking a bite out of the last of what, at one time, became forbidden food during Lent has led to many tasty traditions. Two of the biggest are Mardi Gras in New Orleans, with special foods like King Cake and jambalaya, and Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, with barbecued meats and shrimp stews.

In our area, one of those pre-Lent traditions is paczki, those filled donuts found in bakeries on the day before Ash Wednesday. Coming to us from Polish immigrants, many of whom arrived in the Midwest in the 19th century, paczki have become so popular from Wisconsin to Illinois and Pennsylvania — that the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is now known as National paczki Day (March 1 this year).

paczki (which is the plural version of paczek) comes from a Polish word meaning “bud,” as in a flower about to bloom. paczki is usually pronounced “poonch-key.” They date as far back as the Middle Ages. The treats were developed to clear out the food that Catholics were not allowed to eat during Lent, according to church law.

Giving up foods for Lent is a tradition that goes way back even further in church history. Fasting, in general, dates to our Jewish ancestors, but fasting in the church is tied to Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert. Early on, Christians practiced some form of fasting and/or abstinence before Easter to honor Christ’s sacrifice.

In 866 A.D., Pope Nicholas I declared every Friday to be a day of abstinence from meat, and it immediately became a universal rule of the church. By the 12th century, abstinence and fasting were both Friday practices, for penance as well as in memory of Christ’s Passion, and were common practices. Most Catholics were bound by the rules, even children as young as 12. However, many exemptions were allowed: for travelers, students, the sick, even those with “physically demanding jobs.”

During Lent, not just meat was forbidden. For centuries, any animal byproduct fell under the Lenten ban. This included lard, butter, cheese, sugar and eggs. And, while not an animal product, even fruit was forbidden, since it was sweet.

So, as a last hurrah for fatty foods, people developed ways to “use up” all the Lenten forbidden foods in a big way. That is where Fat Tuesday — Mardi Gras in French — started: Everyone had to use up all their meat and animal-based foods before Lent began on Ash Wednesday.

In Poland, as well as Germany, Italy, Greece and Spain, Fat Tuesday was too late to start enjoying the fond farewell to food. Instead, the sweet and fatty treats were made on Fat Thursday, the Thursday before Ash Wednesday. In Polish, the day is called tlusty czwartek. And it was the day for paczki.

“The (idea behind) paczki is to take the milk, the eggs, the cream, the butter, the whatever is left over of sweets, of sugars of fruits — put it into a donut. It’s gotta be a yeast donut, this is not a cake donut — ever,” Wisconsin food historian Kyle Cherek explained to WUWM radio in Milwaukee for 2021 paczkiDay. “Fry it all up, you’re using your oil and it’s this yummy, rich, delicious thing. You’re using up the last of the temptations before Lent comes.”

In the Middle Ages, the original paczki were filled with pork. However, long before the Polish immigrants arrived on U.S. shores, the primary filling had changed to fruit, most especially prunes. Also popular were rose hips, which made a marmalade. The traditional paczki filling is called powidla, or “plum butter,” and is made from plums that are harvested very late in the season and then dried through winter. The preferred fruit is picked, so late that they might stay on trees until after the first frosts. This ensures that a lot of sugar builds up in the fruit, much the same as grapes used for “ice wines.” Powidla is made without sugar or gel of any sort, so it takes hours to cook.

The current paczki comes to us courtesy of French bakers hired by Augustus III of Poland, who reigned from 1733-63. The king, who traveled Europe extensively as a youth, wanted to update Polish traditions.

Today, while the purists will ask for prune-filled paczki, the range of fillings span an array even French bakers would not have imagined: lemon, cherry, Bavarian cream, cheese and raspberry, just to name a few.

paczki are deep-fried and filled afterwards. Some are rolled in granulated sugar or glazed. paczki  are best eaten fresh, but can be frozen.

One other aspect about paczki-making that not everyone knows about is that alcohol plays a factor in a traditional paczek. The alcohol used in Poland — called “spirytus” — is very strong, 190 proof. Spirytus is a form of grain alcohol, called “rectified spirits.” A small amount is traditionally added to paczki dough just before the dough balls are dropped into the frying oil. The alcohol burns off and serves to keep the oil from being absorbed into the paczki.

Oh, and the little stripe you might see on the outside of the paczki? That means the oil used was very fresh.

Another heavenly treat related to Fat Thursday that also comes from Poland, and other other countries in the region, are “angel wings,” which are called faworki or chrusciki in Polish. They are deep-fried twists of dough, sprinkled with sugar and sometimes cinnamon. The word faworki  means “ribbons” and traces back to medieval European knights. By the code of chivalry, knights would receive ribbons from the ladies for whom they were champions in jousts and other war games. Faworki comes from the French word faveur, or “favor.”

So, do yourself a favor before Ash Wednesday and taste a sweet treat as you prepare to make some personal sacrifices during Lent.

Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; mobilecusine.com; michigan.org; nationalpaczkiday.com; wuwm.com; catholicnews.com; Michigan State University Extension at extension.msu.edu; and polishhousewife.com.

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