I don't know if it's just me or Big Brother monitoring my whereabouts and Googling habits or what, but it seems to me that pączki is having a moment. From completely irresistible stories of adorable church ladies organizing long-standing fundraisers (hello, an annual Pączki Dance?!), to local news coverage, to trend-obsessed food websites shouting out where to get a fix, I can't seem to get away from having my cravings encouraged. For the unfamiliar, pączki (pronounced "POONCH-key", among other variations, but that's more or less the idea) is a sort of glorified doughnut, a fried golden orb stuffed with any manner of delicious sweet fillings, from jam to thick whipped cream to custards and fresh fruit (rose hip jam or stewed prunes are the real tradition, but I think I'llll...maybe pick something else).
Right now, in the days approaching Fat Tuesday/Shrove Tuesday/Eat All the Things Before Lent Day, pączki are all over the Midwest, thanks to a wonderfully rich Polish immigrant influence throughout much of the area, and a general love of eating completely ridiculous things that have absolutely nothing to do with kale in order to get through the winter doldrums. I've been revisiting and researching the baking history of the Midwest since settling back here, and one thing is clear: whatever it is, if it's yeasted, and especially yeasted and then fried, you won't find a better version of it outside this region.
To me, the thing that separates a solid bakery-purchased pączki from a standard jelly doughnut is the texture and the almost comical hugeness. After plenty of highly scientific research in and around Chicago (where bakeries started taking pre-orders for Fat Tuesday pączki last week, so you better get on that), the pączki I've loved the most definitely leans towards more of a "pastry" experience as opposed to a typical doughnut. They also tend to be quite a bit rounder in shape when compared to a regular filled doughnut; if you set one on its bottom and tap its edge with a finger, it might even do a subtle impression of a Weeble for you. Additionally, the ones found in some bakeries are downright gigantic, so overfilled with creams and/or fruit that some places don't even bother to fill them with piping bags, instead opting to slice the pastry crosswise and sandwich the fillings like the dessert burger of your dreams. Observe, a cross-section of a bakery-issued pączki in its natural habitat, complete with measuring tape for scale (again, SCIENCE):
The exterior is a bit like that of a cream puff with less resistance, a tender shell that stops short of being categorized as a "crust", but its golden and a bit sturdy all the same, as only deep frying can provide. When you bite through that top layer (getting confectioners' sugar all up in your nostrils if you're really living life correctly), what awaits inside is more like the classic doughnut that you initially thought you'd be eating, but better--soft, pillowy, the sunny glow of a yeast-risen dough that's been enriched with butter and egg yolks.
When you begin to chew however, and the whole parade of flavors and textures comes together--browned crust, feather-light crumb, sugar and fat, a wisp of cream or slash of fruit to cut through the deep-fried richness that settles on your tongue before quickly melting away--you know you're miles away from a standard-issue doughnut shop offering. If you're going to take Fat Tuesday literally, pączki is the ultimate vehicle. And I'm in the passenger seat next to you, scream-singing Journey songs and getting powdered sugar all over your center console.
Now, truth be told, there are so many great old-school bakeries just minutes from my house that kill it in the pączki department, there is absolutely no logical reason for me to have spent many hours tinkering with recipes to make them at home. Which, of course, is exactly why I spent many hours tinkering with recipes to make them at home. This is my life.
The way I see it, there are a couple of advantages to attempting pączki at home. First, the thrill of danger: what's more exciting than a Dutch oven full of oil that's as hot as the center of the Earth? Second, you can fill them with anything you like, and get several varieties out a single batch of dough. And then there's the ability to play with size and texture. Pączki from bakeries are designed to be showstoppers--most end up at least four inches across and nearly as tall, towering with filling and a layer of confectioners' sugar or glaze so thick you could write "NO DIETING TODAY" in the surface.
With homemade power, though, you can make them huge or as small as you like (beebee pączki! I die), and opt for a roll in granulated sugar (even spiced with cinnamon, ginger...?) instead of the powdered kind if you prefer. Last but not least, there's the guaranteed ability to blow minds and take names, because who in their right mind makes pączki at home except some kind of diabolical genius?
Homemade Pączki Makes about 12 large filled pączki
Although it seems redundant in a yeast-raised recipe, and it's not traditional when compared to other recipes I tried, I really loved the addition of baking powder to give a bit more poof to the final result. Because you're letting the dough rest for quite a while, make sure the baking powder is double-acting (most are these days, but it doesn't hurt to check). What this means is that the baking powder reacts first when it comes in contact with liquid (when you first mix the dough), and then again when heat is applied to it (when the paczki is fried, in this case). That way, you'll still get lift from the baking powder even after the dough rises.
As far as fillings go, there are so many options. You'll need at least 1 cup of whatever you choose. A good quality jam is the simplest, and something sweet-tart, like tart cherry or apricot or even a jarred lemon curd, is great. I whipped up a batch of Modern Vanilla Pastry Cream from my book Pure Vanilla, and added a dash of almond extract for a custard option. You can either split and fill larger paczki generously, or fill them with a pastry bag. To do this, I use a skewer or stiff drinking straw to drill a sort of pilot hole in the doughnut, then use a pastry bag fitted with a 1/4 to 1/2 inch tip to slowly fill the pastries.
For a rounder shape, roll the dough into balls after cutting out the pączki (in the photos here, the pastries were simply cut without rolling, but later tests with rolling revealed a slightly rounder finished product--it's just a matter of aesthetics).
For the doughnuts: 1 tablespoon dry active yeast 1/4 cup warm water (110 to 115°F) 3 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided 1 cup (8 ounces/226 grams) whole milk, at room temperature 4 large egg yolks, at room temperature 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick/2 ounces/57 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 3 1/2 cups (15 7/8 ounces/450 grams) all-purpose flour, sifted 1 1/4 teaspoons fine sea salt 1 teaspoon baking powder
Frying and assembly: Vegetable oil, for frying 1 to 1 1/2 cups filling of your choosing (see headnote) Confectioners' sugar or granulated sugar, for dusting
In the bowl of an electric mixer, whisk together the yeast, warm water, and 1 tablespoon of sugar. Let sit until the mixture is foamy, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the remaining sugar, milk, egg yolks, melted butter, and vanilla extract. Fit the mixer with the paddle attachment and begin mixing on low speed. Add the flour, salt, and baking powder and mix for 3 minutes, scraping down the bowl and paddle often to keep the dough moving. Lightly flour a work surface and turn the dough out onto it. Knead the dough by hand several times, dusting with flour as needed. Place the dough in a large oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rest in a warm place until doubled in bulk and an impression remains when you sink a fingertip deeply into the dough without springing back, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and roll to about 1/2-inch thick. Cut out doughnuts with a 3-inch cutter. For more orb-like pączki, roll the dough pieces into balls with your hands. Place the cut donuts on a parchment-lined baking sheet and cover with a clean kitchen towel. Let rise once more, 30 to 45 minutes.
To fry the pączki, Pour 2 1/2 inches of vegetable oil into a 4 or 5-quart pot. Clip a candy or deep fry thermometer to the side of the pot, submerging the tip of the thermometer in the oil without letting it touch the bottom of the pot. Over medium-high heat, heat the oil to 350°F. Fry the doughnuts in batches of no more than 4 at a time. Fry until deep golden brown, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes per side, turning only once (turning too often can make for greasy doughnuts). Remove the pączki to paper toweling to drain briefly.
Allow the oil to come back to temperature before frying the next batch, and keep and eye on the thermometer to make sure you're frying at 350°F , adjusting the heat as needed to maintain the correct temperature. While the pączki are still hot, dust the exteriors generously with confectioners' sugar or roll in granulated sugar. When cool enough to handle, fill with the filling of your choosing (see headnotes for tips). Pączki are best eaten as soon as possible after frying and filling, but can store overnight in an airtight container (for dairy-based fillings, wait until the pączki are completely cool before filling, and then store them filled in the refrigerator).