The Sweetest Day of the Year: Tłusty Czwartek
Late winter signals the arrival of… the best holiday in the Polish calendar! Moreso than Valentine’s Day, which only gained popularity in the 1990s in Poland, Tłusty Czwartek is the sweetest day of the year. The holiday, which translates to Fat Thursday, is similar to another “fat” holiday people are familiar with, Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras. In fact, both of these days historically celebrate the same thing – the end of Carnival and the beginning of the Lenten season.
Yet for Poles, it is Fat Thursday specifically that is the start of the end – the last chance to eat meat, dance, and sing before the period of Lent begins in preparation for Easter. This period is known as zapusty, roughly translating to “letting oneself go” or ostatki “the last bits”. These last few days of Carnival were also traditionally the most common days to hold a Kulig, a sleigh ride party, where all the most delicious foods and alcohol would be consumed.
Yet the Tłusty Czwartek tradition that remains the strongest and has lasted the longest in Poland is eating pączki, a type of yeasted and deep-fried pastry in the doughnut family, usually filled with jam.
The History of the Pączek
The pączki we eat today look very different from the ones Poles ate 300 years ago, and even more different still from the first pączki in Poland in the 12th century, when they were eaten as part of pagan traditions celebrating the end of winter and the coming of spring. Then, they were referred to as pampuchy or kreple, the latter being a name still retained and used in the Silesian region of Poland. This early pastry was not yeasted or even sweet – it was a hard, almost bread-like dough that was fried and filled with lard. It was a dense bake meant to be eaten during Carnival with vodka, which was eventually produced for recreational consumption during the middle ages.
It was after this time when the krepel evolved into something more recognizable to the modern-day pączek; a honey-topped version soon replaced the savory lard-filled pastry in the second half of the 16th century. From there, things got sweeter. The Renaissance version brought with it a new tradition, one of including an almond or mixed nut filling in some pączki, granting the receiver of one luck for the whole year, akin to the tradition of the King Cake known in other Carnival traditions.
With time, yeast was added to the dough, which turned the once tough bread-like pastry into the more tender springy version we know and love. It was then, in the 18th century, that the pączek attained its characteristic round shape. Like most pastries, it was first served to the upper classes before the masses got their first taste in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as more and more patisseries and confectionery shops opened. The most famous seller of pączki was Antoni Blikle, who opened his pastry shop in Warsaw in 1869. His secret recipe was adored throughout the city, and it was there that the pączek received its orange zest crown which became Blikle’s signature.
The Anatomy of a Pączek
Today, it is a round or hockey-puck shape, but in the 18th century, when yeast was first added to the dough, a pączek was a proper sphere. There are two stories as to the pastry’s round origin. The first involves an Austrian woman named Cecilia Krapf, who would bake and sell yeasted treats filled with fruit in her confectionary. The second story attributes their shape to a Berliner who couldn’t serve in the Prussian army due to his health. He was relegated to the role of field cook and, never giving up on his military dreams, modelled the pastry after a cannonball.
Pączki: Not Only Filled with Love
Polish pączki belong to the same family of pastries as German berliners, American doughnuts (which are also like Polish oponki), Dutch olibollen, Italian bombolini – stuffed yeasted fried dough, topped with either powdered sugar or glaze. However, pączki are deep fried to give them a bit of a crisp crust that contrasts with the tender, springy inside. They are traditionally filled with either prune or rosehip jam but in more recent years, they have been filled and topped with almost anything! Some of my personal modern favorites include a toffee filling and pistachio custard-filled with raspberry marmalade.
If you’re looking for a traditional Polish pączek in Poland, you can usually find them sold at stands every day in every city – you’ll encounter both traditional flavors as well more experimental ones (Kinder Bueno-stuffed, anyone?). I personally think these spots are a solid option for a pączek, and often prefer them to some pastry shops due to their softness and texture.
If you’re eager to try the more modern takes on both pączki and oponki – or are looking for Christmas or Halloween-themed ones – I can’t recommend MODdonuts in the Warsaw area (they also make vegan pączki) or Bite A Donut in Wrocław enough. Both places not only serve the super appetizing dough, they’re also visually appealing – important for any photo opportunities you may be scouting.
If you’re looking for American-style donuts in Poland, don’t bother – unlike McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, and countless others, American donut chain Dunkin Donuts attempted to cross into the Polish market in the 1990s and failed. They hung on for a few years with poor profits – donuts just couldn’t compare to the Polish pączek.
Pączki on Tłusty Czwartek
Tłusty Czwartek is perhaps every Pole’s favorite holiday. It’s hard to stop at just one; on average, each person in Poland consumes about 2.5 pączki on this day. At an average weight of 50-70 grams and approximately 300 calories each (they are a hefty snack!), more than 100 million pączki are consumed on this day yearly. On Tłusty Czwartek, lines are out the door and around the corner of every confectionery in the country, filled with people waiting to pick a few up. It’s considered good luck to eat pączki particularly on this day and many people pre-order to make sure they secure a few.
So now that you know everything there is to know about this most delicious Polish pastry, the only thing left to do… is eat! Leave me a comment below with your favorite flavors and favorite spots for pączki – I am always very eager to do some field research and controlled testing in the name of science.