Sweet-toothed Chicagoans are counting down to Paczki Day, the last day before Lenten season and better known as Fat Tuesday outside of Chicago. Locals descend upon city and suburban bakeries annually and line up for boxes of the traditional Polish treat, which essentially packs 40 days’ worth of sugar and butter into a holeless doughnut.
Kelly Ijichi, a Japanese American chef, has kept an eye trained on the calendar. On Tuesday, February 13, she and a cadre of hospitality collaborators will unveil their unusual and inventive paczki creations. They will host a paczki party on Fat Tuesday in the former home of Big Kids in Logan Square. The irreverent sandwich shop closed on Sunday, February 4, after three years. The festivities will also serve as one last hurrah.
For Ijichi, who ran a pop-up and food stall called Mom’s, this isn’t the first time she’s dabbled with paczki. Chef Lorraine Nguyen has concocted a pastry with malted sunchoke cremeux, dark chocolate, and cacao (“In my head, it tastes like a very good chocolate milkshake from Steak ‘n Shake,”), while baker Rosie Est is stuffing hers with guava citrus cardamom filling and topping them with vanilla icing and puffed rice for a satisfying crunch. Cheesemonger Alisha Norris Jones is tapping into her memory of a standout cheese board at Michelin-starred Lutèce in D.C. for her take, featuring curry comte honeycomb cream.
Not to be outdone, Ijichi promises two paczki, a milk chocolate version with hatcho miso and hazelnut praline; and an old favorite, her truffled paczki. It’s stuffed with truffle honey cream and showered with shaved winter truffle and edible gold leaves. That’s all on top of special walk-in-only offerings, like Nguyen’s Fruity Pebbles-inspired option with strawberry mousse filling and makrut lime glaze. She estimates that each year, the team makes around 600 paczki. It’s a goofy, sugar-soaked time, and Ijichi’s way of forming partnerships with friends and hospitality players, with past participants including Roshelley Mayén of to-go cocktail business Juanitas Bebidas and Palita Sriratana of Thai food brand Pink Salt.
Ijichi began making paczki five years ago when she ran Mom’s out of Marz Community Brewing in Bridgeport. Every year, the Polish- and Korean-owned brewery hosts a Paczki Fest featuring sweet treats from neighborhood bakeries as well as special seasonal beers. Neither Ijichi nor her collaborators are of Polish descent, but the Chicago tradition piqued their interest and presented an opportunity to experiment with questions of food and identity.
“As people who had multicultural experiences growing up, it’s always fun to look at food as something that evolves,” Nguyen says, noting the prevalence of Western chefs who build careers by interpreting cuisines from other parts of the world. “But I think there’s something really powerful and great in flipping that scenario. Instead of a Western lens looking globally, it’s a global lens looking at something Western.”
Four packs of paczki (one of each flavor) and truffle paczki are available for pre-order online through Thursday, February 8. Pickup is from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Fat Tuesday, February 13 at Big Kids, 2545 N. Kedzie Boulevard.