“It’s not just another jelly donut. It’s a pączki,” Greg Smurawa explained, sharing the mantra of his namesake bakery in Pulaski, Wisconsin.
And Feb. 21 isn’t just another Tuesday. It’s Pączki Day!
A longstanding Old World Polish tradition, pączki were made and eaten as a last hurrah to use up food before Lent: a 40-day period of fasting for Catholics before Easter. Originally made with pork fat filling and deep-fried in lard, they didn’t become a sweet treat until the 16th century when sugar became affordable and French chefs became popular… and influential.
While old-fashioned pączki were dense, their sweet, new cousins were “plump and light” and “a mere puff of wind might whisk them off the plate.” But Bismarcks, they are not.
“Pączki are made with more enriched ingredients — more sugar, butter, eggs, and filled with an abundance of jelly,” said Smurawa. Bismarcks, traditional jelly donuts, are flatter, with a sweeter dough and a smaller amount of filling, while pączki are rounder, fluffier, and have a characteristic white band around the sides from the way they float in the fry oil.
How Do You Say That?
Smurawa (smoor-AH-vah) pronounces it as many Wisconsinites do: POONCH-kee. And pączki is actually plural; its singular form is a pączek.
“People will get riled up when you use the plural with an English ‘S’,” Smurawa observed, with a chuckle. “In Poland there are so many dialects. Maybe forty different ways to say ‘potato.’”
He’s heard all sorts of pronunciations, including one really out of left field: “pensaukees.”
Greg Smurawa’s great grandparents immigrated to Wisconsin from Poland and, in their later years, lived with Greg’s grandparents while they were raising his father. That’s how Greg learned to make pączki: from his parents.
“The recipe has been in the family for four generations, about a hundred years,” he said. Smurawa went to baking school, where he met his wife Janice. In September 1998, he and Janice opened their bakery and in 1999, the couple celebrated their first Pączki Day!
During his first years of business, Smurawa went all in to push his pączki agenda: contacting local TV stations and dropping off samples.
“Prior to that, they were popular in Milwaukee and Chicago, in heavily Polish areas, but around here, there wasn’t any pączki,” he said.
Now, he serves them daily, along with Polish dishes like pierogi (dumplings), gołąbki (cabbage rolls), and czernina (soup).
The Bakery’s Best-Sellers
Traditional Polish pączki were filled with “whatever you had available,” Smurawa explained. Prunes held up well, as did apple and raspberry. While “Prunes held up well… and apple and raspberry.” While these three fillings are still Smurawa’s best-sellers, the bakery now serves 14 varieties– some seasonal, some exclusive to Pączki Day.
Fruits are plentiful – cherry, blueberry, pineapple, apricot – plus three different French creams, peanut butter, chocolate, and even red velvet! Janice prefers poppyseed.
“There’s always that interest in coming up with something new, but we stay away from the gimmicky ideas like savory pączki or maple bacon and try to stay true to form.” To finish, pączki are encased in either granulated or powdered sugar, the latter is best for shipping.
A Very Busy Day
It takes six hours to make a batch of pączki. And the Pulaski bakery will produce 1,600 dozen of them this Pączki Day, for local pickups and nationwide shipping.
Smurawa’s pączki travel as far as California and Florida, and are especially popular in communities with a strong Polish heritage, like Buffalo, Cleveland, and Hamtramck (Detroit). Because of the demand, they make and ship them year-round.
Where It All Began
Back in Poland, pączki fever begins on Fat Thursday. Even for Smurawa, customers start picking up their orders the Friday before. Why so early?
“Most often, the tradition with anything Polish is they don’t want to do it just one day. It gives them that much extra time to celebrate,” said Smurawa, pointing out that traditional Polish weddings last several days and Christmas is a three-day holiday, ending in a twelve-dish feast.
But for Greg Smurawa, you can call them poonch-kees, pooch-ki, pawnch-kee, or even pensaukees, and celebrate for any length of time “as long as you know where to get them.”
Smurawa’s Country Bakery in Pulaski, for starters.
Other Wisconsin Bakeries That Serve Pączki
The Polish Center of Wisconsin
Uncle Mike’s Bake Shoppe, Green Bay
Kreger’s Bakery, Wausau
St. Bronislava’s Church, Plover