It is the dark season before Easter. Lent approaches. Time to fast, repent, and deny yourself pleasures. A season of penitence awaiting redemption in the form of a resurrection. So, what is the most logical thing to do before that dark season of denial arrives? Revel in pleasure and indulge in pastries. After all, the pre-Lenten season is the Mardi-Gras season with its festivals of decadence and debauchery. The theme is dance and frolic now because tomorrow you must put on the hair-shirt and empty your pockets of all your candy bars.
In Poland, the Thursday before Ash Wednesday is ‘Tłusty Czwartek’ (twoo-sti ch-var-tech) or ‘Fat Thursday’. It is a day dedicated to the eating of very specific sweets. This Polish pre-Lenten bender is a 6-day frenzy of eating large, gooey, rich, doughnuts called pączki (pon-ch-key). (For the singular form, one doughnut is a pączek or pon-check). Traditionally, pączki were made and eaten as a way to use up all the household lard, sugar, eggs and fruit before Lent as those sundries might be locked up for the season. Sweets were forbidden during the days of Lenten fasting.
A pączek is not just an ordinary doughnut with a funny name. Deep fried and round like a huge dumpling but not circular with a hole in the center, it is sized like a small beach ball and filled with a sweet center. The quality of the pastry dough is very important. It must be ebullient with yeast, and fragrant with a rich, yellow color and lots of lovely air pockets. Deep-fried in high-quality fresh oil with no residual flavors or aromas, biting into a good pączek is gratifying to all the senses: taste, touch, smell with hearing and sight close runners-up. With a whimsical, ‘come hither’ appearance, it is beautiful to look at. And hearing? That sense is engaged with exclamations of contentment while eating with friends.
Pączki fillings and glazes have become a product of modern-day foodie-creativity. This traditional Polish jelly-doughnut is usually covered with either powdered sugar or a semi-transparent glaze with candied fruit zest. The filling is traditionally a rose-hip preserve or a strawberry jam. In some regions, plum and prune (lekvar) fillings were once popular.
The variety in today’s updated, trendy pączki fillings are an invocation to try more; that means eat more! At the top of the pączki filling evolution is chocolate. The quality of the chocolate is important and, in a country where high-quality chocolate is valued, a pączek with chocolate filling can be euphoric especially when finished with a luscious chocolate glaze.
The nouveau fillings include orange marmalade, toffee creams, caramels, cherries, peanut butter, almond paste (marzipan) and white chocolate, too. There is also the coconut flavor sometimes named a Raffaello or a Bounty (after the brand name coconut candies). Coconut pączki are usually covered in a coconut glaze with coconut sprinkles. There are also flavored glazes: orange is one example. Colored cream glazes could be a pink strawberry or purpley plum.
Another popular filling is advocaat, a rich, creamy Dutch liqueur made from a blend of vanilla, egg yolks, sugar, aromatic spirits, and brandy. It is a little like the inside of a Cadbury egg but laced with liqueur.
If you venture out for Tłusty Czwartek, be prepared to wait; the lines in the bakeries and shops are very long. This year, those long queues continued throughout the weekend twisting their way around corners and up and down the streets of Kraków. Cardboard boxes and trays full of pączki were stacked high in the stores with deliveries happening throughout the day.
People-watching was especially fun with folks strolling home carrying boxes and bags of pastry through the busy city streets and on the trams. Strolling through the park, there were children holding half-eaten pączki in their tight little fists with sugar dusting their chins. Busy young professionals eat their pączek in-hand on the way out the door of the shop while the older folk sit around tables and have tea with their confections.
Pączki Day is an event of immoderation which I always look forward to celebrating here in Poland. Whatever else Lent might bring to this solemnly religious country, we happily participate in the preparations on Pączki day or Tłusty Czwartek. Ash Wednesday is the middle of the following week preceded by Shrove Tuesday when you are commandeered to eat a herring (śledzik) for the final prep to the fasting days of Lent. So in the end, the dark side appears early even though I happen to love those sweet little bits of herring.
Polish cuisine incorporates a duality which reflects a spirituality, a tradition, where the corresponding season incorporates a kinship to the natural world. We are now transitioning to the next cycle of the calendar, spring, and its quintessential foods. The Easter table is laid to reflect budding life and resurrection in the guise of beautiful little new potatoes, sorrel, and asparagus from the garden accompanied by sausages and hams smoked to perfection. In the sweet department, the decorative art of a unique cake called a mazurek is traditionally considered at Easter as the reward for the fasting of Lent. And there will be a babka, a sweet bread cake that requires lots of freshly churned butters and many fresh eggs. This will be another indulgence for another posting of another seasonal blog about Poland, my foodie heaven.
“Why Poland?” is a blog written and produced by Grace Nagiecka with photos by Gregory Spring. Kraków, Poland 2018-19.
We invite you to visit our other blogs, “Wanderlusting Dreams” https://www.wanderlustingdreams.com and “Greg Spring Photography” https://www.gregoryspring.com.
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