Monday, February 20, 2012

Sucker Punch Key: The Quest for Pre-Lenten Polish Doughnuts (Packzi/Pączki)

Lent is around the corner, so what do good Catholics do beforehand? Party it up, aka Mardi Gras. And, you use up all the good stuff, like dairy, eggs, lard, fruit, sugar and meat before Lent, since those were forbidden during the forty days of Lent. 

Of course this was back in the day, like the Middle Ages, when Lent was a lot more strict but even today Catholics all over the world party it up before Lent. Usually you don't eat meat on Friday, and you give up something you enjoy for Lent (like alcohol, sweets, swearing), or at least, that's what I grew up doing.

Sadly I did not grow up knowing about pączki (pronounced punch key, the Polish answer to using up all the good stuff before Lent. Think a super rich, brioche-like dough, fried, and filled with a yummy jam or cream. A jelly doughnut? Bah! To call pączki a mere jelly doughnut is like calling Shake Shack a simple burger joint! 

A year ago I read about pączki at one of my favorite foodie websites Serious Eats and I've been thinking about searching for it ever since. They also have a recipe for those more adventurous/baking inclined than I am. Actually I thought it proper to taste it first, so I have a baseline, then I'd consider making it. But after trying it, I see why it's a once a year sort of treat. That and deep fried zeppoles at The San Gennaro Feast.

Anyway, onto the pączki. The Fisherman and I made our way to Greenpoint in Brooklyn in search of these elusive fried yummies. But since we were in the neighborhood, we first stopped for something savory at Relax Restaurant. We were a bit early, so we wandered, and noticed other establishments also had the pączki. This seems to be a seasonal thing, so my guess is you get it while you can. But we were after the best, so we held out. We killed some time, got inspired for fried doughnuttiness, and returned to Relax.

After being fortified with Polish home cooking (and me butchering the name of a Polish beer, again), we head off to Northside Bakery. They had some incredible looking baked goods, as well as some standard Polish fare (is my guess). Being novices, we ordered two of each pączki: a cream and cherry, a powdered sugar plum filling, and a glazed plum filling. Here we can see them hiding in the back.

Some cream pączki waiting...

Boy, was that ambitious to order six of these. 

These are dense, so much so that The Fisherman and I split all six doughnuts in two sittings. Even doughnut connoisseurs such as we are could not consume a whole one. Besides, it's more fun to taste the slight variations.

First we tried the cream, which turned out to be a rich whipped cream with a bit of cherry. It was definitely cherry pie filling, which I had no issue with. Creamy, with a sweet tart cherry bite. Quite tasty.

Next, the powdered sugar plum filling. The plum filling, while sparse, was delicious. Any more would have been ridiculously sweet. The filling also had some rose water flavor, which to the uninitiated could be weird. Many Middle Eastern/Greek/Persian desserts utilize rose water and other floral waters as flavorings, ranging from incredible to tasting like you had to eat soap because you said a bad word.

In this case, it was really incredible. It really made the plum shine, as opposed to mushed prune taste, it brightened it against all that sugar and fat. Really nice. I think this was The Fisherman's favorite because it was the least intimidating in terms of richness.

Here, my pup is very curious about what we're eating, and is quite miffed we aren't sharing, yet. 

For me, my favorite is the glazed plum filling. Sure, the sugar is sticky in this one (more fun if you ask me), but the slight vanilla flavor from the glaze also adds another dimension, and plays against the plum/rosewater filling. 

One thing I didn't love was the seemingly overcooked taste of the dough, like it was fried way too long. But from the other pączki we saw, that color seems to be the norm.

In the end, it's always fun to visit my ancestral homeland (before I moved to Queens), and to feel like a stranger among others with similar last names, to feel like I belong, but I really don't. It's odd, but it's an adventure nonetheless. It makes me happy to know that after moving over twenty years ago, very little has changed in Greenpoint. I like returning to feel a little closer to a side of me that I'm quite unfamiliar, but am trying to rebuild, for me, and perhaps for my kids. We shall see. 

Up next, another culinary adventure...until then, mangia! And a happy Mardi Gras as well!


  1. Hey, those creamy ones look just like some pastries we have here, called "laskiainen pulla." And they're also for pre-Lent festivities. Those look more doughnut-y and less, bread-y, though. Cool. :)

  2. It's probably a result of both Poland and Finland's proximity to Russia. Ah, the joys of culinary anthropology :)