Fat Tuesday brings out the paczki, a Polish pre-Lenten tradition

| Monday, March 3, 2014, 10:58 a.m.

As much as any of the high-calorie foods that pre-Easter feasters will indulge in for Fat Tuesday, one popular Polish pastry makes the pre-Lenten holiday live up to its name.

It's called paczki (pohnch-kee), and with each passing decade the donut-like confection is growing more prevalent in Western Pennsylvania as a Mardi Gras staple.

“It's gotten really big here in the past 10 years alone,” said Marc Serrao, owner of the Oakmont Bakery. “People just can't seem to get enough of them anymore.”

The pastry's origins date back several centuries to when Polish women would fry them up to clear their kitchens of butter, eggs, cream and lard in time for lent.

It originally came plain or loaded with fruit or a prune filling called lekvar. Soon, bakers began piping other fillers such as jelly and custard into the dense pastries.

Now, the treats range anywhere in size from a small baseball to an oversized softball. A survey of nutrition information shows the pastry, which tastes similar to a donut, packs more than 400 calories and 20 to 30 grams of fat, depending on the size and fillings used.

In Poland, the tradition of baking the treats blossomed into a full-blown national holiday known as “Paczki Day,” which people celebrate annually on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday.

As the tradition grows, most Americans go for the paczki on Fat Tuesday. But for some traditionalists such as Ewa Stein, who emigrated from northern Poland 17 years ago, Paczki Day is celebrated on the preceding Thursday.

“That's how it's always been done over there, so why change?” said Stein, 45, of New Kensington. “My family has already had their paczki.”

For some Poles, Paczki Day is synonymous with family, because many would spend the whole day together baking the pastry with their own recipes. But Stein, whose maiden name is Jaruszewska, takes a more modern approach and chooses to test the market to bring home paczki to her family.

The pastry can be found at several grocery chains such as Giant Eagle and Foodland. For a Polish paczki purist like Stein, though, the only place to go in the Alle-Kiski Valley is the Oakmont Bakery.

“The paczki there, it tastes like one of the best you would buy in Poland,” she said. “They're very authentic except for maybe the fillings.”

The Oakmont Bakery offers nine fillings for its paczki, which is sold each year from Jan. 6 through Easter to cover the Mardi Gras and Lenten season. With everything from peach flavor to maple bacon, on which the bakery sprinkles real bits of bacon atop the pastry, the paczki has become a huge hit among fans of the bakery.

It sells between 3,000 and 4,000 paczki at $1.50 a piece each day between the Thursday and Tuesday before Lent, according to Serrao.

“We slow down a little bit on Ash Wednesday, but we don't slow down very much through Lent,” he said. “Each weekend, we sell between 800 and 2,000 paczki.”

Serrao first discovered paczki about 20 years ago in a baking magazine. After reading about the pastry, he decided he'd whip up about two dozen, which his customers eagerly took off the shelves. From there, he said, the tradition has continued to grow and requires him now to call in two extra staffers to handle the crowds for Fat Tuesday, he said.

Other paczki traditions in the Alle-Kiski Valley run deeper.

The Rev. James Mazurek of Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Harrison remembers vividly the Fat Tuesdays he spent growing up in a Polish section of Pittsburgh's South Side baking paczki with his extended family.

“Every family in my neighborhood did it,” said Mazurek, 66. “My grandmother used to make them with the lekvar, now you're seeing even the most staunch conservatives giving in and buying the custard filled ones at Giant Eagle and such.”

Mazurek's congregation held a Mardi Gras party on Friday at the Natrona Heights church to lead in the Lenten season. The party featured a New Orleans-style traditional jazz band and of course, paczki, which one of the parishioners made by hand for the congregation.

Although Mazurek no longer spends the time making the Polish pastry by hand, the paczki remains a large part of his past. The pastor even earned the nickname “Pohnch,” short for paczki, during his time at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“They still call me that, I think because I look more like the Michelin Man than I was known for baking or liking paczki,” he said. “It is a part of my past, though, and it's a great tradition that I hope carries on here for a long time to come.”

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or bashe@tribweb.com.

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