CHICAGO — Local bakeries are going all out for Paczki Day — and experimenting with unconventional and boozy flavors so the beloved pastry appeals to Chicago’s diverse residents.
Dobra Bielinski, owner and pastry chef at Delightful Pastries in Jefferson Park, is offering passionfruit, salted caramel and German chocolate paczki, as well as “drunken paczki” in flavors like moonshine and lemon. Bielinski’s bakery is a go-to for many come Fat Tuesday, which Chicagoans will celebrate next week.
The flavors are a far cry away from traditional paczki fillings like plum butter, apricot, raspberry and briar rose. But Bielinski branched out for a very specific reason.
“I realized I’m not in medieval Poland,” Bielinski said. “We have a lot of Americans and Latinx who come, too, so we can’t make it just for Polish people. We want to make paczki for everybody.”
Other area bakeries have experimented with paczki flavors: Orland Park Bakery in the suburbs is tapping into a southwest side specialty and making Atomic Paczki this year, for example. The treats are designed after the Chicago area’s iconic atomic cake with fresh bananas and strawberries. Dinkel’s in Lakeview is serving up strawberry cheesecake paczki, while Reuter’s in Montclare is offering cannoli paczki and banana-and-custard-filled pastries topped with fudge.
Ttraditional flavors remain a favorite, too. Bielinski grew up nibbling on briar rose paczki in Poland, and she still makes them and other conventional paczki at her Jefferson Park bakery.
“[My great aunts] had lots of briar roses in the back, and they’d make the jam and dough, then stuff it and fry it,” she said. “I’d come home after school and the entire house would smell like fried dough. That scent of the rose is amazing, especially when it’s homemade, when you grind the petals with sugar.”
Whether Chicagoans are trying traditional or modern flavors, Paczki Day continues to bring people together — and be hugely popular.
Delightful Pastries makes tens of thousands of paczki every Fat Tuesday. Other popular bakeries see lines out the door as Chicagoans battle for the beloved Polish, doughnut-like pastries.
The tradition began as Fat Thursday in Poland as a way for families to use up fats and sugars before Lent began. When Polish immigrants came to the United States and settled in the Midwest, they brought paczki with them.
Demand at bakeries in Chicago — where there is a large Polish-American population — began to spike in the ’50s and ’60s. Then, Bielinski said, the next generations helped paczki evolve.
“The second and third generation became Americanized, and they started celebrating Fat Tuesday instead of Fat Thursday, calling it Paczki Day,” she said.
Instead of being a specialty in Chicago’s Polish enclaves, paczki became mainstream, Bielinski said.
Even though Delightful Pastries sells paczki all year — “Polish people don’t eat paczki only on Tuesday; they eat it all year round,” Bielinski said. “It’s like eating pie. Do you only eat pie on Thanksgiving? No, we eat it all year round.” — Paczki Day is when it sees the most paczki sales by far.
Delightful Pastries and other bakeries start preparing for paczki sales at the end of January. Bielinski had already made 15,000 dough balls by mid-February, and she expected to make at least 5,000 more before Paczki Day rolled around.
Chicago’s bakers — like Bielinski with her whiskey and chocolate custard paczki — have found ways to tweak the flavors and recipes and have them appeal to all people.
Karla Hughes, owner of online-based beLIGHTful Bakery, has come up with a recipe for vegan and gluten-free paczki to ensure everyone can try the pastries.
Hughes was raised in the southwest and hadn’t heard of paczki, but her Polish husband loves them. When she moved to Chicago, they saw a plant-based need for the pastries in the city and aimed to fill it.
“After being active in the Chicago vegan community, I was encouraged by my husband and friends to make and offer paczki to the public,” Hughes said. “He hadn’t ever had a vegan version, and we didn’t see them in the vegan community at all. The recipe is his grandmother’s, and his mother taught me how to make them step by step. I swap animal byproducts for vegan ingredients, and the flour is my hand-blended gluten-free flour.”
Hughes offers strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, apricot, Bavarian cream and a non-filled pastry that’s just rolled in sugar. Making these specialty paczki holds a lot of meaning for her, she said.
“[One of my] favorite moments is seeing customers enjoy special and nostalgic treats for the first time ever, like a family friend who was Polish and could never try paczki because of celiac disease, or [getting to try them again] after becoming vegan,” Hughes said.
No matter the person, their background, their neighborhood or their eating style, Chicagoans can all rally around at least one thing: paczki.
“I just love how culture and food gets absorbed into American culture,” Bielinski said. “That’s how we get to know other cultures, through their food. No one will fight you over a brownie or a pizza — or a paczki.”
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