Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Paczki Day in Poletown

Every Fat Tuesday (the day before the start of Lent), cities with heavy Polish-concentrated neighborhoods across America (i.e., Detroit and Chicago) celebrate with the deep-fried gooey goodness of the paczki. New Orleans may have Mardis Gras, but their beignets have nothing on our paczki.

Paczki (ponch-key) are traditional Polish "doughnuts," though the dough used is much richer than traditional dough. It contains eggs, lard, sugar, and sometimes milk, as well as fillings such as a variety of fruit jams (strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, and lemon are popular) and custards. Paczki have been a tradition in Poland since the Middle Ages, when they were baked the week prior to Ash Wednesday ("Fat Thursday," 6 days prior to Lent, as opposed to Fat Tuesday, a more contemporary celebration) to use up all the remaining eggs, lard, sugar, and fruit in the house, which were forbidden during Lent.

But now the paczki has taken on its own identity, and for many metro-Detroiters the day before Ash Wednesday means "Paczki Day," when people drive from all over the region to stand in lines wrapping 'round the block waiting for their authentic freshly-baked Hamtramck paczki.

Now, you can buy paczki from many local grocers (I've seen them at Meijer for almost a month now, and other local chains such as Kroger and Nino Salvaggio's have them in stock, as well as countless bakeries and pastry shops), but this doesn't compare to the experience of waiting in line like a true die-hard in the bitter cold on the corner of Jos. Campau and Yemans with other true die-hards talking about how silly it is that you're all waiting in line for some doughnuts, then agreeing that it is totally worth it.

At the urging of a friend of mine (who told me explicitly that I was absolutely not to try to trick him with a non-Hamtramck paczki because he could tell), I chose to wait in the New Palace Bakery line, rumored to have the best paczkis in Poletown. I had some great line-mates so the time flew by, plus the weather wasn't abyssmal and the sun was out, so the experience overall was rather pleasant.

Knowing that I'd be standing for at least a half hour and recognizing that, despite the sun, it still was below freezing outside, I stopped first by Cafe 1923 for some coffee to keep me warm while I waited. $1.75 for some of the best brew you'll find anywhere (their Michigan Cherry blend puts every coffee chain in existence to shame), and I was ready to hurry up and wait.

The wait only ended up being about 45 minutes (and like I said, I had good company so the time flew), and then I was on my way with my plain white pastry box tied with string filled with raspberry and custard paczki.

As I write this, I am in a state of custard-induced euphoria. My two paczki--one plain custard, one chocolate-custard blend--didn't make it much past my kitchen table. I swore up and down I would save one for later, but alas--I did not. My friend is lucky I don't care much for raspberry, else those might suffer the same fate and he would be presented with nothing but an empty box and my smiling custard-smudged face.

New Palace Bakery offers a variety of traditional paczki flavors, as well as some special blends they've created such as Strawberry-Custard ("Hamtramck's 75th Anniversary Paczki," created in 1997), Chocolate-Custard ("Millenium Paczki," created in 2000--one of the two I inhaled), and the "Hamtramck Boat" (banana custard, strawberry, and pineapple filling with milk chocolate on top). They also offered the "Presidential Choice": cherry with chocolate topping.

Sound heavenly, don't they? Wait, there's more: considered one of the most fattening pastries, one of these little guys clocks in at about 300-450 calories and 22-27 grams of fat. The two I ate cost me probably about 850 calories, or almost half of my standard daily caloric intake (I've countered this by not eating anything else today and I don't care if you say that's unhealthy). But hey, it's only once a year, right?

Wrong--what most people don't realize is that you can get packi year-round in Hamtramck, just typically only on Saturdays. Even still, you probably shouldn't make it a habit.

The paczki themselves? Well, with the dense dough and heavy filling they feel like they each weigh about three pounds, but ooomfgchompslurpgulp are they good. The dough is soft and heavy with the slightest bit of deep-fried crunch, and the filling--especially the custard--is...well, it's all over my face right now because I still haven't cleaned myself up, so it's good. Fatty and gooey and bursting out of its doughy casing and good.

Hm...my friend doesn't know I bought him two paczki...I could maybe sample one of them and he'd never even know...hmmmmm...

Next year, make the trip out to Hamtramck for some truly authentic paczki. You might have to wait awhile in line, but it's well worth it...besides, this is one of those true Detroit things every Detroiter near and far should experience at least once in their lifetimes. And for the record, New Palace Bakery is worthy of its buzz. And they make moon pies, too! I don't even like moon pies but I think that's cool!

Happy Paczki Day, the Polish St. Patrick's Day!