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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Happy Mardi Gras (aka Pączki Day)!

What is Pączki Day? How about what is a pączki? What about King Cakes, where did they come from?

Don't worry, I'll do my best to try and answer those questions.

Now pączkis are fine, but what if you're living in a southern state and can't find them? Well places like New Orleans, Louisiana and even Houston, Texas have King Cakes.

Did you know that Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday? Mardi = Tuesday, and gras = fat. It's the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, so everyone who celebrates tends to fill up on different foods.

Once again I have been unable to get any pączkis since I'm not in Michigan where there is a larger Polish community. I guess if I were closer to Austin, I could possibly find some, although I'm not sure if the Czech bakeries sell any.

Taking a look at history, Fat Tuesday / Mardi Gras was an chance for Catholics to eat all of the eggs, lard, fruit and sugar that was still in their house before Lent.

Polish immigrants settled in the Great Lakes area (Michigan) towards the end of the 19th century, to work in steel mills and iron ore / copper mines. They established in places like Hamtramck. Along with them they brought wonderful foods, giving us things like pierogis (filled Polish dumplings) and pączkis of course.

The pastries were typically eaten on Fat Thursday, the last Thursday before Lent. In Detroit, Milwaukee and Chicago, Pączki Day is more commonly celebrated on Fat Tuesday instead of Fat Thursday.

Various Pączkis - source here.

Most of us Michiganders knew this was a good holiday when we tasted it. Yum!

Go find a Polish bakery on Fat Tuesday, but don't wait till the last minute. We love these pastries so much, you may not be able to find any if you wait. Some places even have pączki eating contests. Ugh, I could only eat about one. Especially with all the calories!

I grew up in Michigan, and even though I wasn't from Detroit, and am not Polish or Catholic, I was still able to enjoy a few pączkis when I was younger.

My mouth waters just thinking of them.

Pączki is pronounced [poon-shki] or [pun-shki] depending on where you're from. It is often Americanized and spelled "punchkies" for those of us from the north.

Mmm! [drool] - source here.

The pastries are deep fried until golden and can be filled with a traditional rose hip jam, cooked prunes, or various flavors of jams. Many times they're covered with a dusting of powdered sugar or a light glaze. All I know, is that they're good (at least once a year).

You might say pączkis are like Bismarcks (American jelly or cream-filled doughnuts), although pączkis can be better than doughnuts in my opinion. Especially if you find them homemade, or from an authentic Polish bakery.

Pączki - recipe from Bread Chick

This recipe was reduced. The original made twenty large or forty small pączki.


1 1/2 packages active dry yeast
10 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
3/4 ounce rum or whiskey (can be omitted)
1/4 cup lukewarm milk
1/2 cup melted butter
3 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 cups canned prune filling or cherry jam

Note - you can substitute any flavored jam to your liking. Be careful to avoid the really sweet ones, they will be a bit overpowering. Some recipes also use poppy seed paste.

1/2 cup milk, scalded and cooled
1 teaspoon salt
powdered sugar

Step 1 - Make the sponge

Activate the yeast by dissolving in the 1/4 cup lukewarm milk (milk will become slightly bubbly and frothy in about 5-10 minutes). Scald the 1/2 cup milk while waiting for the yeast to become activated and gradually add the flour into the scalded milk (I sift my flour before adding it to the scalded milk). Add the yeast mixture and stir until smooth. Cover and let rise until very bubbly (about 1/2 hour)

Step 2 - Make the dough

Beat the salt into the egg yolks. Then add the sponge to the egg yolks and salt. Mix very well until smooth. Add the sugar and rum again mixing well. Knead in the bowl until a nice smooth dough ball forms. Next, form a well and pour in the melted butter and combine with your hands until thoroughly mixed. Place in a greased bowl, coat with nonstick cooking spray, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled (about 1 - 1 1/2 hours). When dough is doubled, punch it down and let rise until double or triple (about 2 hours).

Step 3 - Form the pączki

Divide dough in half, set one half aside in covered bowl so it doesn’t dry out. Roll out the half you are working into a rectangle that is about 1/4 inch thick. Using a biscuit cutter or the mouth of a glass (2" or larger) cut as many rounds as possible.

Place a about 3 tsp of filling in the center of one round. Brush edge of round with egg white and cover the filling with another round. Seal edges very well so filling won’t leak out and rounds won’t separate during last rise. Place the filled pączki greased baking sheets. Leave about 4 inches of room between each pączki to allow for rising. Repeat the process until all the dough is used (this recipe will make between 10 - 12 good sized pączki depending on amount of dough). Lightly cover with greased plastic wrap and let the pączki rise until doubled (about 1 hour).

Step 4: Fry the pączki

(note: if you have a deep fryer, make sure you change the oil if you have fried anything other than pastries)

Pour a neutral tasting oil into a deep fryer or deep pan (about 7 inches if you are using deep pan).

Heat the oil until it is about 360 to 370 degrees. Deep fry the pączki for about 3 minutes per side or until golden brown on both sides and it floats to the top. Let drain on cooling rack covered with paper towel to absorb any excess oil (flip over after about 2 minutes or so) Dust with powdered sugar when slightly warm. Let cool completely before serving, the filling will be too hot otherwise.


Back to the day where all this eating takes place – Mardi Gras and some history.

New Orleans Mardi Gras history

Though the exact origins of Mardi Gras are subject to debate, the celebration known as Carnival came to be associated with Judeo-Christian tradition.

In its earliest usage in medieval Europe, the Latin word carnelevare, from which "carnival" is derived (literally meaning "to lift up" or relieve from "flesh" or "meat"), may have referred to the beginning of the Lenten season of atonement and abstinence rather than the festive holiday customs that preceded Lent.

Because the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, was one of feasting—as symbolized by the ritual slaughter of a fatted bull or ox (boeuf gras)—it came to be known as Fat Tuesday or, as the French would say, Mardi Gras.

Occurring on any Tuesday from Feb. 3 through March 9, Mardi Gras is tied to Easter, which falls on the first Sunday after the full moon that follows the Spring Equinox. The climax of Carnival, Mardi Gras is always scheduled 47 days preceding Easter (the 40 days of Lent plus seven Sundays).

You can read about the history of the King Cake here.

"The King Cake tradition came to New Orleans with the first French settlers and has stayed ever since. Like the rest of Mardi Gras during those early days, the king cake was a part of the family's celebration, and really didn't take on a public role until after the Civil War. In 1870, the Twelfth Night Revelers held their ball, with a large king cake as the main attraction. Instead of choosing a sacred king to be sacrificed, the TNR used the bean in the cake to choose the queen of the ball."

Most of the King Cakes I have ever seen don't use a bean anymore. The most common item stemming from the 1950's, is a small plastic unclad baby. Many people say this represents the baby Jesus, which ties in to the connection with Epiphany, while others attach no particular religious significance to the cake or trinket. Others say the baby hidden in the cake refers to the fact that the three Kings ("Wise Men") had a difficult time finding the Christ Child and of the fine gifts they brought to Him.

Others say, "The baby in the cake was said to have become common after a local bakery chain got a large shipment of such plastic baby dolls from Hong Kong very cheaply in the 1950s. Some say there is little further significance to the baby, but earlier ceramic baby dolls as trinkets are documented in New Orleans back to at least the 1930s."

Some of the plastic babies have holes in them as well. This hole runs from the top of their heads to their bottoms. This allows Mardi Gras party-goers to string the baby onto a strand of beads and wear them around like badges.

Although, whoever finds the plastic baby in their slice of cake, is in charge of paying for the current cake, or buying a King Cake the next day or week, up until Mardi Gras day. These days many bakeries will affix the baby figure to the inside of the cake box to avoid tooth damage, choking hazards, and lawsuits. The person who buys the cake can then insert the plastic baby into the whole cake or a slice, avoiding a surprise when they bite down.

The classic King Cake is oval-shaped, like a racetrack or oblong doughnut. The cake dough is basic coffee-cake, sometimes it has cinnamon and nuts inside, other times it's just plain. This dough is rolled out into a long tubular shape, then shaped into the oval. The ends are twisted together to complete the shape. The classic decoration for King Cakes is simple granulated sugar, colored in purple, green, and gold (the colors of Carnival).

It's a bit late to get yourself any Pączkis or King Cake, but keep them in mind for next year. You can even make your own King Cake or Pączkis. (I read that you are not supposed to prepare and serve King Cakes before Twelfth Night - Jan. 6 or after Mardi Gras Day.) Maybe if you bake one before today is over you might be safe. ;o)

King Cake - courtesy of Emeril Lagasse.

Prep Time: 3 hr 30 min
Cook Time: 30 min

Serves: 10-12 servings


1/2 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
2 packages dry yeast
2 teaspoons sugar
4 to 5 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
1/2 cup warm milk (105 to 115 degrees)
1/2 cup melted unsalted butter, cooled
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup finely chopped candied citron
1 pecan half, uncooked dried bean or King Cake Baby


2 cups sifted powdered sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons water
Purple, green and gold sugar crystals


Preheat the oven 350 degrees. Combine the warm water, yeast and 2 teaspoons sugar in a small bowl. Mix well and set aside to a warm place for about 10 minutes.

Combine the 4 cups of flour, 1/2 cup sugar, salt, nutmeg, lemon rind and add warm milk, melted butter, egg yolks and yeast mixture. Beat until smooth. Turn dough out on a lightly floured surface.

Knead in enough remaining flour until the dough is no longer sticky. Continue kneading until the dough is smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes). Place the dough in a well-greased bowl. Turn once so greased surface is on top.

Cover the dough and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk (about 1 1/2 hours). Punch the dough down and place on a lightly floured surface. Sprinkle with the citron and knead until the citron is evenly distributed.

Shape the dough into a cylinder, about 30 inches long. Place the cylinder on a buttered baking sheet. Shape into a ring, pinching ends together to seal. Place a well-greased 2-pound coffee can or shortening can in the center of the ring to maintain shape during baking.

Press the King Cake Baby, pecan half or dried bean into the ring from the bottom so that it is completely hidden by the dough. Cover the ring with a towel, and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove the coffee can immediately. Allow the cake to cool. For the glaze: Combine the ingredients and beat until smooth. To assemble, drizzle cake with the glaze. Sprinkle with sugar crystals, alternating colors. Cut into the cake and let the celebration begin!


Happy Pączki Day / Fat Tuesday / Mardi Gras everyone!

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