Like many great American traditions, pączki (punch-key) are an imported treat. Traditionally consumed here in the States on Fat Tuesday (and on Fat Thursday in Poland), these deep fried jam or jelly-filled doughnuts have taken hold in regional pockets around the country with sizable Polish-American populations like Detroit and Chicago. The city of Hamtramck, Michigan takes pączki festivities to the next level with lines queuing before dawn at local bakeries for the prized doughnuts.
To understand pączki's place in the pantheon of great doughnuts, you have to go back a few centuries to the Middle Ages when fasting rules were more strict. Fat Tuesday was truly the last hurrah before the somber 40 day period of Lent when the consumption of meat, eggs and dairy was forbidden.
Recipes for dishes like pączki were favored for using up the last of the verboten foods. As result, pączki tends to be heavier on the eggs than most doughnut recipes, using plenty of yolks, which give the doughnuts a brioche-like quality. The addition of plenty of yeast to give the pączki a higher than typical rise lends a sweet, lightly fermented flavor to the dough. While raspberry, prune, and rose jelly are traditional flavors, there's no reason not to get creative with your favorite jam or preserves.
Crisp on the outside, yet soft and yielding on the inside, pączki may look like ordinary jelly doughnuts, but these rich and dense pastries are far from run-of-the-mill. As Serious Eater LunaPierCook noted, "Any claim to a paczki being 'just a jelly donut' probably means the eater hasn't had the real thing."
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