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No matter how you pronounce it, paczki remain a Chicago pre-Lent staple

Video by Brian Rich

It’s that time of year again, where folks debate how to pronounce paczki.

Polish speakers will graciously enlighten their circle of friends and coworkers on the pronunciation of the decadent fried doughnuts: paczki is plural (POONCH-key); one pastry is a paczek (POON-check). Also, they’ll add that the Polish community celebrates on Fat Thursday (Tłusty Czwartek).

Having grown up outside of the Midwest, I look forward to this ritual as much as I do Thanksgiving. I’d never heard of paczki before moving here and consider it one of the quintessential hallmarks of learning how to be a Chicagoan.

Tuesday is the beginning of Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day, depending on where you live in the world. For Christians it’s the day before Ash Wednesday, the time to indulge before observing Lent and the season of fasting for 40 long days.

Delightful Pastries in Jefferson Park neighborhood, at 5927 W. Lawrence, has been a favorite for locals, foodies and reporters on the hunt for the tastiest, authentic paczki since 1998.

Chef/Owner Dobra Bielinski describes herself as a hyphenated American. “I celebrate the American and Polish one, it’s two celebrations for the price of one.”

So where did the delightful paczki come from? Originating from necessity, cooks had to figure out how to use up all the lard, fat, sugar and eggs in the pantry before the holy season of penitence and restraint.

Stasia Hawryszczuk makes paczki dough from her secret recipe at Delightful Pastries Bakery in Jefferson Park. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times
Stasia Hawryszczuk makes paczki dough from her secret recipe at Delightful Pastries Bakery in Jefferson Park. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

According to Bielinski, there’s also a lesser-known legend of a medieval mayor from Krakow named Comber who oppressed the town square’s peddlers with high taxes, fines and imprisonment. A group of women vendors banded together to oppose him by frying and giving away paczki on Thursdays. (There seem to be many derivatives of this story — some claiming he died the Thursday before Lent and paczki were used as part of the celebration.)

This year’s Fat Thursday at Delightful Pastries saw 2,703 paczki sold to walk-in customers. On Sunday evening, over 7,400 pre-orders had been taken for Fat Tuesday. Over past years, they average around 500 customer walk-ins on Fat Tuesday. For the upcoming week, they estimate selling more than 32,000 paczki.

Preparation begins months in advance — with menu planning, vendor orders and dough preparation. The bakery staff begins frying paczki on Sunday evening, working overnights until close of business on Tuesday at 5 p.m.

“We don’t shorten the process. We don’t short-change it, so it’s light, fluffy, airy. We make the dough, we proof it, we round it by hand, proof it again, fry it, glaze it. They cool and then we fill them,” said Bielinski.

The bakery uses only high-quality, natural ingredients — real butter with no artificial additives or food coloring in all of their pastries, cakes and breads.

Creative, intellectual and gregarious, Bielinski greets all customers, interchanging French, Polish and English. She dashes from the kitchen to the register, checking on a vat of chocolate. She describes herself as hyper.

Born in Poland, her family lived in Vienna, Austria, and South Africa, before immigrating to the United States when she was 15. She started baking at age 8 but was an accomplished student, graduating high school early, and was headed for a life in academia or medicine.

“She disappointed us, after two masters degrees, she [goes] to the culinary school,” said her mother Stasia Hawryszczuk, “We [didn’t] even know.”

After completing a pre-med program, she secretly enrolled in culinary school. Eventually, her parents came around — so much so, that her mother has been pivotal — working at the bakery, sharing her secret paçzki recipe and overseeing quality control.

Raspberry-filled paczki await at Delightful Pastries Bakery in Jefferson Park. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times
Raspberry-filled paczki await at Delightful Pastries Bakery in Jefferson Park. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

At 72, Hawryszczuk is charming, opinionated and running the joint. Always within reach is a school composition book with the bakery’s records. She takes care of the numbers. Legendary in her own right — she is said to have once “told off” a venerable long-term mayor of Chicago.

Her prized secret paçzki recipe sits in a bank deposit safety box, protected from potential espionage. Only Mom makes the paczki dough at the bakery. The aromas of lemon, orange and rum are tantalizing even in the paçzki’s raw form.

Each pączek is rolled by hand. Hawryszczuk is the last person to touch them and line them on their proofing trays. She holds each briefly in her hands, rejecting ones that don’t feel or look right.

Flavors change yearly with some mainstays like the very traditional rose petal jelly, apricot, raspberry, and plum butter. All fillings are made by scratch from real fruit. There’s also strawberry and whipped cream. Seasonal varieties include guava, nutella and passion fruit.

For those who want to combine vices, there are “drunken” paczki with flavors of lemon moonshine, vanilla bean vodka custard, and chocolate Jameson whiskey custard.

Bielinski knows that by Tuesday evening she will have lost her voice from talking to so many customers. Her back and feet will hurt but she knows it will all be worth it to bring fond childhood memories and happiness to her customers. She wouldn’t have it any other way.