Pączki find life after Fat Tuesday | Food | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pączki find life after Fat Tuesday

Local bakeries are happy to supply the demand for these calorie-rich, pre-Lenten treats

click to enlarge Pączki at Oakmont Bakery - PHOTO: OAKMONT BAKERY
Photo: Oakmont Bakery
Pączki at Oakmont Bakery

On March 5, Fat Tuesday revelers will stuff their faces with pączki, (pronounced poonch-ski in its plural form) a traditional holiday dessert with Polish origins. In Pittsburgh, the treat has risen in popularity, popping up at local bakeries and Giant Eagles. 

And with Fat Tuesday rolling around later than usual this year on March 5, that gives businesses more time to serve the decadent treat.

“We get inundated with phone calls and emails asking when we’re going to start selling them,” says Laura Powell of Party Cake Shop in Brookline. 

Powell – whose parents, Scott and Nancy Smith, own and run Party Cake – says the store started selling pączki in the early-2000s when they noticed the dessert becoming trendy. They now sell around 300 dozen a week beginning the second week of January. 

The genesis of pączki is a lesson in resourcefulness: dating back to the Middle Ages, people made them to use up any perishable lard, butter, eggs, milk, and fruit in anticipation of Lent fasting. Rich dough balls are fried and filled with everything from traditional jams made of stewed plums or rose hips to custards and sweet jellies of lemon, raspberry, and apple. They are then rolled in powdered sugar, iced, or glazed.  

While pączki are compared to donuts, Powell believes they offer more than their fried dough counterparts.  

“It’s unlike your traditional raised, glazed donut that you get any other time of the year, especially with all the fillings,” says Powell. “You get a lot of filling in there, so you might like your Boston cream donut with your cream filling, but you get a pączki with custard in it, you’re going to get a heck of a lot more custard.”

The treat has a big following in the Midwest, to the point where many cities have a designated Pączki Day, but it took a while to catch on in Pittsburgh, despite the city’s strong Slavic heritage. Ania Becker, president of the Polish Culture Club at the University of Pittsburgh, explains that, even in the Polish diaspora, Tłusty Czwartek (Polish for Fat Thursday, a holiday occurring before Fat Tuesday) has always been a big day for both religious and non-religious Poles to feast on pączki.

“Since Poles have been immigrating to Pittsburgh since the late 1800s, pączki were most definitely eaten in Pittsburgh, at least in those immigrant communities,” says Becker. “I will say, though, that finding good pączki is hard in Pittsburgh and most of the traditional pączki eaten would be homemade and not commercially sold.”

Marc Serrao, owner of Oakmont Bakery in Oakmont, started making pączki in 1990 after reading about them in a trade magazine. He recalls initially making two dozen of them as an experiment and selling every single one. 

In an interview for Chatham University’s Western Pennsylvania Foodways Collection, Serrao says he first saw the pączki as a “super donut” that would appeal to customers.  

“I’ve really watched what’s trending,” he says in the interview, adding that they also tried to capitalize on the Cronuts phenomenon with their own creation, the Doughsánts. 

But unlike other pastry trends that have come and gone, including gourmet cupcakes, it seems as though pączki are here to stay. Since first introducing them nearly 30 years ago, Serrao believes his bakery has become well known in the area for pączki by offering 15 varieties, including the Polish staple prune filling, lekvar. 

“We sell over 1,000 on a slow day and 5,400 last year on Fat Tuesday,” says Serrao. “We had to add some equipment to keep up with them.”

In order to keep up with demand, Oakmont and Party Cake have both bucked the tradition of halting pączki production during Lent. At Oakmont, the bakery begins selling them on First Night (Jan. 6) and continues through Easter, long after Fat Tuesday ends. 

“It’s a little unorthodox but it works well for us,” says Serrao. “They aren’t typically sold during Lent, but our customers demand them so we continue to make them.”

Party Cake has started selling pączki for a few weeks in the summer when business slows down. They have also introduced new flavors, including peanut butter buttercream last year and, as of this Valentine’s Day, strawberry buttercream. “I think that’s something we might start doing since people really seemed to enjoy it,” Powell says of the latter.

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment