The Paczi is a Polish pastry similar to a doughnut. Pronounced poonch-key, this roundish dessert is usually filled with fruit, a fruit jelly or custard. It’s a pre Lenten delicacy in Chicagoland.
Historically in Poland, all of the ingredients that go into a Paczki; lard,sugar,eggs and fruit, were forbidden by Christian fasting practices during Lent. They would use all of the “sinful” ingredients in the pantry days before lent began. Clearing out the pantry of temptation.
Here in Chicagoland where the Polish population is said to rival Warsaw, Paczki Day is celebrated with consumer zest. Waiting in a bakery line that stretches out the door, down the block, around the corner for your Paczki order on Fat Tuesday is part of the excitement now. Many folks willing to wait in line, have family roots that extending a few generations deep from Poland. But not all, some just want the sweetness of these treats before the Lenten season begins.
Neighborhood family owned bakeries in Chicago were once a staple of the community. The Chicago neighborhood I grew up in Bridgeport was splattered with family owned bakeries. On the west side of Bridgeport where I lived, we had a few Polish bakeries to choose from.The closest to my home was Michalski’s Bakery.
My friend, Andy Michalski invited me once again this year to a wonderful end of winter tradition, a Paczki making gathering.
Andy’s great grandfather Bruno opened the bakery in 1929 not far from Bubbly Creek. His son Anthony took over and now Andy’s father Greg owns the building. Four generations of Michalski’s have worked in this bakery business in some capacity. In 1992 the bakery closed its business doors.
But lo and behold the magic is still happening.
The Michalski Paczki gathering takes place the weekend before Ash Wednesday. It’s a three day affair. Friends and family gather to make Paczki and socialize. It’s has an of open house feel to it. Folks bring dishes to pass. There was chili, tamales, hot dogs and plenty of bottled water and soda in the upstairs kitchen and always someone to chat with. A new person to meet who wants to make Paczki. This annual gathering has a wonderful community feel that is rare in this day and age. Last year was my first year and I didn’t know a soul but Andy. I returned this year to a few familiar faces, who remembered me as well. From across the room I spotted someone I recognized. Another Kelly High School Alum was making Paczki! It was Bill “Tennesse” Scarbrough. He was working alongside the youngest participant of the day, his granddaughter Destiny. She had on her own apron and was taking it all in.
The kitchen still holds the original wood burning oven used to make Polish Rye bread.
The final Paczki product is not sold, but donated to various organizations and anyone who gets the opportunity to be a part of this takes home a variety of Paczki. This past weekend the Michalski’s made 300 dozens of sweet filled goods. I brought home a dozen; custard, raspberry, apricot and strawberry cream.
They began by combining all the ingredients to make the dough.This includes using the old fashioned scale to measure out the flour and sugar. Was it a secret recipe? No, Andy shouted out all the ingredients, but I didn’t write it down.
This industrial sized bakery mixer was used and the dough was mixed in no time. The date on the mixer was 1910, an oldie but goodie.
The dough was laid out on the floured board to be rolled out and cut into Paczki size portions.
The traditional Paczki were fried then stuffed with a filling like raspberrry or custard, then sugared. Sometimes, the pastry is stuffed before it’s deep fried.
On this day we pre-stuffed the pastry with apricot and then deep fried it. We topped it with an apricot glaze that Andy whipped up. He made all of the fillings right there in the basement.
As I made my way home that afternoon I had a wonderful sense of community that I haven’t experienced in awhile. Maybe it’s because I don’t belong to a church anymore or my kids are not in neighborhood schools. But the feeling was real and I miss this. I smiled all the way home and I had an extra hop in my step. Perhaps it was because I was carrying a dozen Paczki and I didn’t have to wait in line, I helped make them.