Poonchkey. Punchki. Paczki. However you want to spell it, it’s impossible to say without smiling. Just try it. I’ll wait.
The only word of Polish I know*, it’s what my mom called–and still calls–my sisters and me, her little punchkis. Growing up, I vaguely knew she didn’t make the word up, that they were kinda-sorta Polish doughnuts, but until I moved to Chicago I didn’t truly understand the cult of the paczki.
I still remember making the phone call: “Mom! Punchkis are real things! And Chicago has a whole day for them!” I don’t know how I had missed it during my first four years living here, but on this particular Tuesday (technically Paczki Day is the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, but it usually just gets lumped together with Fat Tuesday), I honestly think I did a little dance on the street when I saw the sign at my favorite local bakery. I still get excited about February just because I get to hear other people say my favorite word. Oh yeah, and it’s a whole day dedicated to eating these amazing little treats.
Like other baked goods from the Polish half of my heritage, paczki are impossible to talk about without mentioning my great-grandmother. I’ve already talked about her baking, and the stories of her paczki are no different. After making these this weekend, I understand why my mom still remembers helping to make these when she was little.
The process is so sensory–the circles of dough are the softest little pillows you can possibly imagine, the poof they do when they hit the hot oil is like magic, and the first bite when the powdered sugar puffs from your breath and your teeth break through the crispy outside to give way to a warm cloud-like dough, and then you hit the sweet jam…they tasted exactly like what I remember my great-grandmother’s baking tasting like.
These aren’t like what you get at bakeries today, even the big-deal super authentic Polish bakeries in Chicago. They are small, about the size of the palm of your hand with just a little dollop of filling (preferably prune–yes it is actually good and no it doesn’t have any…side effects), not the huge over-filled craziness (ok, tasty craziness) that fill bakery shelves.
Here was my personal challenge with making these: I’ve never actually had one made by my mom’s family, nor have I ever seen anyone make them. So as I went through the cookbook recipe, I had to laugh as it was written exactly like a family recipe with the assumption that you know (or at least have seen) what the dough is supposed to be like, the best method for filling, the amount of time to cook them. So I winged it, and learned a few things in the process that will hopefully make these easier for you to make.
And I do hope you make them, even if they are a once-a-year treat.
*Ok, I know a few others–kielbasa, buscia, gwumpky (my other favorite Polish word! it sounds like dropping a big pebble in deep water). But that’s the sad extent of my Polish language skills and my terrible attempt at phonetic spelling.
Makes about 2 dozen small paczki. This recipe is from a beautiful cookbook/travelogue I received for Christmas, Rose Petal Jam: Recipes and Stories from a Summer in Poland. You can use any filling you like (and if you happen on a good prune, apricot, or cheese filling, please share!)–but the sturdier the filling, the less likely it will ooze out during frying.
4 ounces (about 1 cup) all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk, warmed to about 110 degrees
4 ounces fresh yeast
4 egg yolks
1 cup (7 ounces) sugar
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1 tablespoon spiritus (high proof alcohol), whiskey or rum
1 stick (4 ounces) butter, melted
2 pounds flour (about 6 1/2 to 7 cups)
8-12 ounces jam or other filling
Vegetable oil for frying
Powdered sugar for dusting
In a medium bowl, stir together all ingredients for the starter, breaking up the cakes of yeast as best you can. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rest in a warm place for about an hour until doubled (and it will double!) and bubbly.
In a large bowl, beat together the egg yolks and sugar, then add lemon juice, zest, spiritus, and melted butter. Stir in the flour and now-puffy starter. The dough will be too soft to form a ball, but I promise it will be ok. Depending on the size of your bowl, you may want to divide the dough between two large bowls to rise for another hour–even after dividing my dough, it rose to the top of both bowls, so be prepared!
On a well-floured board, take a large handful of the risen dough (it will still be very, very soft) and roll it out to about 1/3 inch thick. Use a small glass (about 2 inch diameter) or cookie cutter to cut the dough in circles. Drop a teaspoon of jam (the sturdier the jam, the better it will hold up during frying), being careful not to get any on the edges of the dough or you won’t be able to seal it. Top with another circle of dough and pinch the edges together, sealing tightly. Dough can be re-rolled and cut until you have all your paczki ready to go, or you can save scraps to fry on their own, like a delicious Polish version of beignets. Set aside on a cutting board or sheet pan lined with plastic wrap and cover with a towel; let rest for about 30 minutes.
While the paczki are resting, begin to heat your oil. I used a wide, 3-inch deep pan and filled it with about 2 inches of oil (one 48 ounce bottle was just enough), or enough that the paczki can float off the bottom of the pan while they cook. The oil will be ready when you can drop a small piece of dough in the oil and it floats, around 350 degrees if you have a thermometer.
When the oil is ready, gently pick up one paczki (a paczek! look, you’re learning Polish!) and check for any holes that could allow the filling to seep out. Carefully place it in the oil, it should float. Fry until the bottom is a deep golden brown, then flip to cook the other side, about 3-4 minutes total. My first few were a little doughy around the filling, so you may need to sacrifice one or two to the gods of baking before you get the timing right. Fry in batches of 2-3 and drain on a cooling rack. When cool, dust with powdered sugar.
These are really best within a few hours of making them, but they certainly aren’t bad the next day (or the day after that…).