Doughnuts and Mardi Gras are a marriage for the ages. Germans gorge themselves on fastnachts; the Portuguese, malasadas; and the French, of course, beignets. But while beignets may get the most Fat Tuesday fanfare, when it comes to fried indulgences, my heart will always belong to paczki: traditional Polish yeasted doughnuts that are as plump as down pillows and filled with ribbons of tangy fruit preserves.
In the Eastern European community I grew up near in Central Connecticut—and in other enclaves, from Cleveland to Milwaukee, Greenpoint to Pittsburgh, where generations of Poles persist—the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is officially dubbed Paczki (pronounced "punch-key") Day: a free for all when bakeries and grocers churn out fresh doughnuts by the thousands and hordes of sugar-mad locals rush to line up for their share. Historically, there's a practical purpose behind all this pigging out: preparing the rich dough provides observant households with a way to use up the eggs, milk, butter, sugar, and lard in the pantry before the austere diet of the Lenten season starts.
In Poland proper, Paczki Day is generally observed a few days earlier, on the final Thursday before Ash Wednesday—and indeed, paczki are a beloved pastry treat throughout much of the year. Last summer, during a stay in Warsaw, I took it upon myself to conduct a thorough taste taste of every paczki purveyor I encountered (yes, it was a tough job) and I've been longing for my favorites—airy pom-poms piped with rose petal jam and glazed with a sprinkling of candied orange peel—from Cukiernia Pawłowicz, ever since. In my Brooklyn neighborhood, I'm lucky enough to live blocks from a Polish market that fills its windows with stacks of doughnuts every day at 6:00 a.m. sharp: a lifesaver when serious cravings hit. Still, even a solid store-bought paczki pales in comparison to the homemade version, puffy and piping hot from the pan.
That's why this Mardi Gras, I'll be turning my kitchen into a one-woman paczki shop, greeting Lent with a mountain of dough, a sweet slick of plum jam, and a flurry of powdered sugar. It's easier than it looks. And should the feeling move you—even if you don't have a drop of Polish blood and couldn't pronounce paczki if you tried—I urge you to do the same. After all, fried dough is a universal language.
PACZKI (POLISH JELLY DOUGHNUTS)
Makes about 2 dozen
Active time: 45 minutes; Total time: 2 hrs 45 hours
2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 tablespoons instant yeast
1 tablespoon plus 3/4 cup granulated sugar, divided
5 1/2 cups all purpose flour, plus more for work surface
1 egg plus 4 yolks
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 1/4 cup preserves (preferably plum butter, apple butter, rose jam, cherry jam, or currant jam)
1 cup confectioners' sugar plus more for dusting
Candied orange peel, finely chopped, for garnish (optional)
1. Warm milk in a small saucepan, then transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer. Stir in yeast and 1 tablespoon sugar, then set aside for 5-8 minutes until mixture is frothy. Stir in 2 1/2 cups of flour until it forms a a thin batter. Cover bowl and let rest in a warm spot for 30 minutes, until mixture has risen a bit and is very bubbly.
2. In another bowl, whisk eggs until pale and light, about 3 minutes. Stir in 3/4 cup sugar, vanilla, and salt. Drizzle butter into yeast batter and stir gently. Working in increments, stir in egg mixture. Fit mixer with dough hook and set speed to low. Slowly add flour, just a little at a time, until a soft, sticky dough comes together. Transfer dough to a greased bowl, cover, and let rest in a warm spot for 1 1/2 hours, or until doubled in size.
3. Turn dough out onto a floured work surface and roll into a 1/2"-thick rectangle. (Sprinkle dough with a bit more flour if difficult to roll.) Using a 3" or 4" round cutter, trim the dough into rounds. Transfer rounds to a parchment lined baking sheet, then re-roll the scraps and repeat with remaining dough. Cover baking sheets and set aside in a warm spot for 45-60 minutes, until rounds double in size.
4. While the rounds are rising, add 2 inches of oil to a large dutch oven or wide, tall-sided skillet set over medium heat. Using a deep-fry thermometer, monitor the oil temperature until it reaches 360 degrees F. Working 3 at a time, lower the rounds into the hot oil and cook, turning once, until deeply golden brown on all sides, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a rack set over a baking sheet to drain. Repeat with remaining rounds, making sure the oil temperature stays at 360 degrees F.
5. Once the doughnuts are cool enough to handle, poke a hole in one side of each using a chopstick or the back of a wooden spoon. Spoon preserves into a piping bag or a plastic storage bag fitted with a piping tip, then squeeze filing into each doughnut.
6. In a small bowl, combine 1 cup confectioners' sugar with 3 tablespoons water. Drizzle glaze over doughnuts until shiny. Sprinkle with a pinch of confectioners' sugar and top with candied orange peel, if desired.