Rows of raspberry-glazed paczki made at National Bakery and Deli in Milwaukee. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)
Rows of raspberry-glazed paczki made at National Bakery and Deli in Milwaukee. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

Fat Tuesday Is a Time to Indulge in Those Perfect Polish Pastries

While most Milwaukeeans were still sleeping, 57-year-old Kenny Lovas was standing outside in the frigid February air. He arrived just after 4 a.m. Tuesday and staked his place nearly two hours before the doors opened at National Bakery and Deli.

By the time the  shop opened at 6 a.m., revealing an accordion player and girl dressed in traditional Polish garb, a horde of several dozen had formed a line behind Lovas.

They were all there for one thing — or two or three, or maybe a baker’s dozen — paczki, a traditional Polish filled pastry famous in areas with strong Polish-American populations throughout the Midwest.

“Everybody’s Polish on Paczki Day,” said Lovas, who has just a smidgen of Polish ancestry. He has been coming to National Bakery for paczki for 25 years. 

He’s got the mayor beat. By comparison, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who was spotted in line at about 6:45 a.m., said he’d been coming for about 16 years.

Bryant Krauss, co-owner of National Bakery, figures that he will go through 3,600 pounds of flour, 260 pounds of eggs and 1,200 pounds of sugar to create between 40,000 and 50,000 of the buttery delights. The fillings range from 1,700 pounds of raspberries to 500 pounds of prunes.

Bryant Krauss, co-owner of National Bakery and Deli in Milwaukee, goes over plans for Paczki Day with his employees Monday night. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)
George Valenti, left, and Carlos Alduen put paczki into tubs of sugar Monday night to prepare for Fat Tuesday sales at National Bakery and Deli in Milwaukee. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

The tradition at National Bakery goes back 95 years, to when Louis Wisniewski opened his bakery in 1925 in a traditional Polish neighborhood that was later demolished for a freeway. National Bakery now has branches on South 16th Street and in Greendale and Brookfield. 

“It’s definitely our single biggest day of the year,’’ he said. 

Today is Paczki Day in Wisconsin, or Ponczka Day, depending on your Polish translator. And you’ll find as many people pronouncing it “poonch-key” in Wisconsin as you will saying “pawnch-key” in Illinois. Just say it however you want while your mouth is full of one, and you’ll be doing it right.

In Poland, the traditional day people indulge on the deep-fried, fruit-filled pastry is the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, known as Fat Thursday. But Poles in America have adapted to the Mardi Gras festivities and now generally feast on Fat Tuesday.

Folks from Pulaski to Polonia will be indulging in one last rich and buttery treat before the austerity of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. And because it’s Wisconsin, there’s even a paczki beer fermented from these jelly-filled pastries. 

Paczki can be glazed, sugared or frosted. Here is a tray of sugared paczki made at National Bakery and Deli in Milwaukee. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

Paczki Day has parallels in other pre-Lenten traditions. The Creoles down along the Gulf Coast will celebrate Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, by polishing off a final King Cake.

Episcopalians celebrate Shrove Tuesday — the name refers to being “shriven” of your sins during confession. Then they celebrate with a pancake supper that sometimes includes  a race of people running with frying pans while flipping flapjacks. The idea is to use up your butter, eggs and cream before the fasting season of Lent.

To find paczkis, you need to find Polish Americans, and there’s no more Polish place in America than the area around Stevens Point, where you’ll find Polish field shrines to the Virgin Mary at rural crossroads and a polka on the jukebox. In the 2000 census, seven of the 10 most Polish census tracts in America were in central Wisconsin.

At St. Bronislava Parish in Plover, they call the treats “ponczka,” and the bakers of the parish will crank out 1,250 dozen of them starting at 4 a.m. on Saturday. Smart pastry lovers order early, but there are usually some available after mass on the Saturday and Sunday before Ash Wednesday. 

The St. Bron’s bakers offer their treats with traditional prune filling, as well as Bavarian cream, blueberry, raspberry, lemon and plain.

Up the road at Sacred Heart Parish in Polonia, the bakers made 500 dozen to be picked up following weekend masses. Susanna Lepak says the parish offers prune, jelly-filled and plain for sale on pre-order, and as part of their Ponczka Bingo Party, which took place on Sunday.

“Anyone who plays bingo also gets a ponczka and coffee,’’ she said.

Paczki Day was a tradition when chef Laurel Burleson of Madison’s Ugly Apple Cafe was growing up in a Polish-American family in the Chicago suburbs. Her mom would always have to eat the traditional prune-filled paczki because Laurel and her sister didn’t like them.

A row of paczki from Ugly Apple Cafe in Madison. (Photo provided by Ugly Apple Cafe)

“We always had paczkis, but then I went to school in Michigan and realized that it’s not a thing everywhere,’’ Burleson said.

She started making paczki to sell by pre-order. Her dough is traditional and definitely not what you’d find in a prosaic jelly doughnut.

“It’s yeastier, and richer, and the filling is real fruit, closer to a pie filling than a jelly,’’ she said.

Although prune and rose-petal jam are the traditional fillings in Poland, Burleson likes to vary hers from year to year. This year her fillings are roasted pineapple, raspberry, strawberry-rhubarb, and chocolate custard. 

“It’s NOT a jelly doughnut,’’ adds Greg Smurawa of Smurawa’s Country Bakery in Pulaski. “Heavens, no.”

Last year, Smurawa’s served up 36,000 paczki in 18 flavors that ranged from peanut butter and poppyseed to red velvet and cream cheese. There’s a traffic jam on Pulaski Street on Paczki day.

But it wasn’t always like this. While the Smurawa family has owned the bakery for 90 years, Paczki weren’t a big thing until Greg and his wife Janice took over the bakery and began promoting them about 20 years ago.

“I would drive around to radio stations with a box of paczki and just knock on the door, and they’d invite me on the air to talk about them,’’ he said. “I was kind of the paczki pimp.”

This year, he’s kicked it up a notch. Earlier this winter, the brewmaster at Hinterland Brewery in Green Bay had the idea of making a beer based on paczki. Into the vat went 1,200 of Smurawa’s raspberry-filled, sugar-coated paczkis. A few weeks later, Paczki Imperial Stout was ready to be bottled. 

“It’s pretty darn cool to think it all started with a paczki,’’ he said. “Now you can eat your paczki and drink your paczki… at least until Ash Wednesday.”