Paczki Day 2021 is already different from any other due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under regular circumstances, locals cram themselves into storefronts, eager to get their hands on the rich, hole-less Polish doughnuts that are traditionally deep-fried and coated in a snowy layer of powdered sugar or a glass-thin glaze. Fat Tuesday normally the busiest day of the year for European bakeries all around Chicago, but the merriment will be subdued this year.
Residents of all backgrounds find joy in these indulgent and calorie-laden treats that inevitably result in sticky fingers and crumbs clinging to shirt fronts, devouring them before they’re outside the bakery door. They’ve also learned to plan ahead if they want to get their hands on the goods, which tend to sell out before noon, waking up early or setting aside a few midday hours to seek out a box — or several — of a half or full dozen.
This year, Chicagoans need that gleeful sugar rush that paczki (pronounced POONCH-key) provide more than ever. The pandemic makes the usual chaos of Paczki Day a dangerous proposition, so bakeries from the northern suburbs to the south side, some in existence for nearly a century, have implemented new policies like online ordering and outdoor pickup.
Paczki were developed in Poland so Catholics could use up tasty ingredients like sugar, eggs, and butter before beginning the Lenten season in accordance with Fat Tuesday (or, in Poland, Fat Thursday) customs. Though they’re now almost always made with sweet flavorings, the doughnuts were once savory, as they were historically fried in lard and filled with pork fat. Contemporary bakers usually try to balance an assortment of traditional flavors, like prune and rosehip, with creative and modern spins featuring ingredients like shaved winter truffle and edible gold leaves. In Polish, paczki is plural. A solo doughnut is called a paczek (PON-chick or PUN-chick).
Weber’s Bakery was founded in 1930 on the Southwest Side and has fostered a loyal clientele that most years rush the bakery counter, pressing their hands against the glowing pastry cases lining the cozy store as they wait for piles of pillowy paczki, fat with filling. The scene will be quite different this year, says Rebecca Weber, great-granddaughter of bakery founder Erich Weber, who immigrated in 1924 from Germany to Chicago.
Instead of packing customers into the store, Weber’s has introduced online preorders via Shopify and plans to distribute paczki to customers in socially distanced lines under tents outside the Archer Avenue bakery, planning to put out “tens of thousands” of the pastries. The switch from taking phone orders to logging virtual ones is a change ownership has considered for years, Weber says, but they were stopped by concerns over the potential volume of orders, which could overtake the bakery’s manpower and supplies.
“The pandemic didn’t give us a choice,” she says. “We had to do it because the amount of time it was taking to complete phone calls with customers who wanted to shop and pay over the phone kind of forced our hand.”
Despite fears, the transition has been smooth, even for employees who have worked at Weber’s for more than 30 years. Though some customers have said they’ll miss the usual Paczki Day bustle inside the wood-paneled bakery with a peaked roof, Weber says that she thinks most will appreciate the ease and speed of prepaid pickup. It’s an approach the bakery will likely use in the future, even when pandemic eventually subsides. “People used to be crammed into that store, but don’t think we’re going back to that,” she says.
Over on the Northwest Side in Jefferson Park, bakery owner Dobra Bielinski is also preparing for a unique Paczki Day. Most years she can pack more than 30 people at a time into her 23-year-old pink-and-white storefront, which she founded with her mother. She says the pandemic has decimated her wholesale operations, resulting in a 60 percent drop in revenue. Despite the fiscal struggles, Bielinski plans to fry up more than 30,000 paczki in flavors ranging from plum butter to passionfruit jelly with Caribbean rum.
Bielinski, who fled martial law in Poland as a girl in the 1980s and came to the U.S. at age 15 with stops in Austria, South Africa, and France for education along the way, says paczki have given her a better appreciation for her cultural background. They’re also an ideal vehicle for introducing non-Poles to the country’s history and culinary traditions, embodying her philosophy that the best way to get to know another culture is through its food. “When you break bread with other people, it makes you part of their culture,” she says. She imbues that global approach into her bakery menu, including the paczki. Bielinski already has plans for Fat Tuesday 2022:
Despite the allure of creative fillings, paczki are really about the dough, she says. A paczek should spring back and maintain its shape with each chomp. She’s rankled by the fried items sold as paczki by a local doughnut company that she declines to name. They deflate and flatten when bitten, she says. Using ingredients like a yeast dough with butter and milk (rather than substitutes like margarine) along with lemon and orange oil will provide the fluffiness and flavor that paczki fans desire. She also makes sure to maintain a light hand with the glaze, applying a super-thin layer to the paczki while they’re still piping hot.
This year, Bielinski has also introduced online ordering to expedite the process and keep contact to a minimum. Paczki Day production begins at 9 p.m. on Sunday night at the bakery, and the fryers won’t be turned off until 2 or 3 p.m. on Fat Tuesday. By the day’s end, she expects that she’ll be barely coherent, but the joy of watching repeat customers makes the sleepless nights worth it. Despite the long hours, Bielinski is delighted “when people are stuffing their faces,” she says.
“It’s a tiring day, but it’s a very happy day.”