Celebrated every year in the run-up to Lent, Fat Thursday has almost become Poland’s national holiday. At the heart of the festivities are pączki, or Polish-style doughnut. Millions of sweet doughy balls are fried throughout the night, ready for the long queues which spill from bakeries and confectioneries from the early hours of the morning. Demand is so great that the most renowned eateries even impose limits on how many pączki each customer can buy.
Some Poles compete to see who can eat the most pączki, while others symbolically eat one or two with their afternoon coffee. One old superstition claims that whoever fails to eat a doughnut on Fat Thursday will be cursed with a year of bad luck: which is why even the pickiest of eaters will try to eat at least one. Statistically, every Pole devours around 2.5 pączki on Fat Thursday. That’s at least 100 million doughnuts in Poland alone.
Pączki (pronounced: pownch-key, already plural) differ quite a bit from similar delicacies around the world. What you’ll notice straight away is the lack of a hole in the middle. That’s because a Polish doughnut is traditionally filled with rose petal jam, mixed fruit jam, or damson cheese (a thick plum paste). Its golden-brown exterior is covered with thick white glazing and then showered with candied orange peel.
When you finally take a bite, the texture might also surprise you. Pączki are much denser and chewier than regular doughnuts. The secret lies in its rich yeasted dough, made with a generous amount of fresh egg yolks, butter, and milk.
Pączki are then fried in lard until they turn golden-brown. Some confectioners fill each dough ball with jam before frying, others prefer to do so afterwards. Once decorated, they’re ready to be enjoyed. Despite being sale throughout the year, pączki on Fat Thursday just taste better.
The origins of Fat Thursday are closely related to Poland’s Catholic traditions. Fat Thursday marks the last week of the traditional carnival celebrations before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent, Christianity’s traditional period of fasting and self-deprivation. Over the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, it is tradition to abstain from eating meat and other animal products such as eggs or lard.
To avoid waste, it was also traditional to avoid temptation over this difficult time by using up any food and ingredients already made or bought. It was a perfect opportunity for a rich, fatty feast. Poles originally celebrated this date of indulgence on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, more in time with the rest of the world and celebration’s such as the UK’s Shrove Tuesday. However, with time, the date of the celebration shifted, giving devotees the time to celebrate to the full.
Today, most Poles rarely fry pączki at home. With so many bakeries and pastry shops in every Polish city, it’s just easier to buy a few. Pączki are also sold in almost every Polish supermarket, although with lower prices comes lower quality.
If you’re not lucky enough to be visiting Poland right now, then try finding a Polish bakery where you live – there are more of them every year. Thanks to the Polish diaspora, pączki are quickly becoming popular internationally, especially in the USA, where both Fat Thursday and Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) are celebrated simply as “Pączki Day”.
Alternatively, making pączki at home is not as difficult as you may think. After all, nothing beats freshly fried homemade pączki, glazed and sprinkled with fragrant candied orange peel.
Total Time: 2.5 hours
250ml whole milk
30g fresh yeast
1 pinch of salt
4 egg yolks
60g icing sugar
60g clarified butter
1 litre lard or canola oil
Candied orange peel
Filling of your choice: rose petal jam, fruit jam
For the glaze and topping:
120g icing sugar
0.5 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp candied orange peel (chopped)
Heat up the milk until warm (not hot!). Pour 3-4 tablespoons into a small bowl, crumble in the yeast, and add a pinch of salt. Set aside for 10 minutes.
Sift the flour into a large bowl, and pour in the rest of the milk. Add the yeast mixture, blend together with a spatula, and set aside for 20 minutes.
Place the egg yolks and icing sugar into a medium-sized bowl. Beat them together with a mixer, blender, beater, or whisk until they are light and almost white in colour.
Combine the contents of both bowls together and add the clarified butter. Knead thoroughly, until the dough feels smooth and elastic. Form a ball, place it in a bowl and cover with a kitchen towel. Leave to rise for at least 30 minutes.
Once well risen, place the dough ball onto a worktop sprinkled with flour. Roll into a thick “snake”. Cut small pieces of the dough and form smaller dough balls. Each ball should roughly be the size of an orange. Place the smaller balls neatly on the worktop, cover with kitchen cloth, and leave to rise once for 30 minutes.
Heat up the lard (or oil) in a wide cooking pot (ideally with a thick base). Once hot, drop in a few doughnuts at a time. Make sure they have enough space to float around without touching each other. Fry until the pączki turn golden brown (2-3 minutes per side). Remove carefully with a skimmer and place onto a paper towel.
Fill an icing bag fitted with a sharp tip and generously pipe the jam of your choice into each doughnut.
In a small bowl, mix together all of the glazing ingredients with a fork. Dip each doughnut into the glazing mixture and then place on to a cooling rack. Sprinkle with candied orange peel and set aside until glaze hardens. Eat while fresh.