First, say it right.
The word “paczki” is not, as I sometimes do, pronounced “pash-key,” like artist Ed Paschke.
Nor “push-key,” like the Jewish charity box.
“Punch-key” is close. But not quite.
“Poinch-key,” said Warsaw-born Dobra Bielinski, of the Polish pastry so ethereal it has its own holiday in Chicago, Paczki Day, Tuesday March 1. “That’s how you properly pronounce it.”
Bielinski is pastry chef and owner of Delightful Pastries, 5927 Lawrence Ave., and with my fierce commitment to shoe leather reporting, I sat down with her Friday to talk and eat paczki — the word is plural. “Paczek” is singular, though good luck limiting yourself to one. I couldn’t.
Second, they’re not doughnuts.
“What’s the difference between a paczki and a doughnut?” asked Bielinski. “Doughnuts have water and yeast and whatever the hell they put in. They’re very, very sweet. Paczki are not very sweet. There’s butter, eggs and milk inside the dough. That’s very important.”
“Because they’re part of the cleaning out of ingredients in your house,” added James Beard Award-winning chef Gale Gand, who Bielinski worked under as a young baker. Gand swung by Delightful Pastries on Friday to join us.
Paczki Day is also known as Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” the blowout before the 40-day denial of Lent.
“Certain old-school Catholics don’t do desserts,” Bielinski said. “I don’t see them in my store except to buy bread.”
Third: It’s what’s around the fillings that’s important.
“We eat paczki for the dough, not the filling,” Bielinski said. “Polish people judge paczki by the dough. The filling is the cherry on the top.”
Though not actual cherry, at least not here. Bielinski sells the trinity of traditional fillings, “The Pantheon” she calls it: raspberry preserves, rose petal jelly and plum butter, augmented by 10 more haute flavors, like salted caramel and apricot, fresh strawberry and custard topped with chocolate fudge, not to forget her “drunken” paczki in flavors like lemon and moonshine or Jameson whiskey with chocolate custard.
A reminder that, fourth: Don’t underestimate the sophistication of a bakery just because it’s Polish.
Bielinski spends $457 a gallon on real vanilla instead of artificial at 1/10th of the price. Unlike some bakeries, she has spent “millions” on real butter, real honey, real whipped cream.
And yet some expect Polish bakeries to be amateur operations run by a rustic with a babushka on her head, while patronizing French bakeries no matter what.
“Even if they make garbage and call themselves a French bakery, they’re still popular,” said Bielinski, a bubbling cauldron of strong opinions. “Even if though the food is inedible.”
That is only a hint of the delightfully frank conversation Bielinski, Gand and I had, with much laughter and contempt directed at corner cutting, cost-fixated lesser bakeries run by blundering, rude cheapskates such as ... well, I shouldn’t name names.
Speaking of stress.
Fifth: Running a business with family is complicated. Bielinski opened Delightful Pastries in 1998 with her mother, Stasia Hawryszczuk, a fact that articles — and Bielinski generates a lot of press — invariably mention without further elaboration, a stunning example of journalistic malpractice, to drop that fact without then asking: What’s that like?
“It has its ups and downs,” said Bielinski, with uncharacteristic brevity.
“For the most part,” she said. “We’ve worked it out, really, very well between each other. But sometimes ... we have very disparate ways of looking at things. Then we clash. Then we talk it through until we reach some sort of middle ground.”
What sort of things?
“She wanted the banger cash register” instead of a modern system,” Bielinski said. Her mother’s attitude toward a new oven was: “If it’s not broken, why change it?”
Change is hard, especially when it is your brilliant daughter who studied French philology at the Sorbonne in Paris who is changing her plans.
“I was so disappointed when she said she wanted to be baker,” Hawryszczuk said. Her daughter had been such a promising student.
“She was the best,” Hawryszczuk said. “She got a trophy for the best student in the high school. Such a huge trophy. They put her name on the trophy.”
Bielinski’s shift into baking required a radical adjustment in worldview for her loved ones.
“In a Polish family, if you are not doctor, not lawyer, not teacher, you are nobody,” said her mother, 74. “My husband was engineer. When she graduated from the culinary school, my husband didn’t even want to go to the graduation, because he was so upset. He said, ‘Oh my God. what are we going to tell the family in Poland and our friends?’”
But that view softened, right?
“Now is a different time,” she said.
Speaking of which.
Sixth, and final: Time is key when making or purchasing paczki. Just as Valentine’s Day is the one day when people who like to eat in restaurants generally don’t, yielding the field to amateurs, so the connoisseur of paczki will avoid buying them on Paczki Day itself.
“On Tuesday, it’s insane,” Bielinski said. Getting the pastries made and sold is a 72-hour, all-hands-on-deck effort.
“We have extra staff,” Bielinski said. “My ex-husband coming in. My kids are coming in. I’ve even asked my brother’s ex-girlfriend to come in. We literally have everyone come in working crazy hours. We start on Sunday, and we don’t finish until Tuesday night. Literally working three days straight.”
Best not to inject yourself into that madness. There are 364 other days.
“I would say avoid Tuesday,” Bielinski said. “Pie is not just eaten on Thanksgiving Day. Paczki aren’t just eaten on Paczki Day. We eat them all year round.”