Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Mardi Gras 2012, Part I: Nutella-Filled Pączki

Joyeux Mardi Gras ! et laissez les bon temps rouler ! Well, okay perhaps it's a day too late to be claiming that, but nevertheless I spent yesterday around much more food than Ash Wednesday and the start of the Lenten season technically permit; so much in fact that I've decided to split my Mardi Gras meals into two separate posts. This particular one focuses on one Mardi Gras (also known as Shrove Tuesday) tradition that seems to be especially popular in Michigan, given the Polish population in Hamtramck (Michigan's most internationally diverse city): Pączki Day. Pronounced pünch-key (though I've also seen punch-key) for more than one pączek, these pastries are simply more than just another jelly-filled donut. Aside from their differences with the lesser pastry (yeah, I said it), pączki hold a special place in my food memory bank as they stand out as part of my high school experience. In particular, I always looked forward to the chocolate cream filled ones, and for whatever reason it was only at UDJ (and of course the place from where they were purchased) that I was able to find them. And so here in central Ohio, despite the possibility of making a Mardi Gras/New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA) favourite--beignets and coffee from the Café du Monde--(though one could expect to eat these any time of the year), I decided to make my own pączki... and fill them with Nutella. Seriously, these were [are] good.

Have you ever watched a program or video clip and see someone prepare a dish so easily you think you can do it too? (And then it's a complete toss-up as to whether you would be lucky or completely fail?) In this case, after watching the above video, I was convinced this process wouldn't be extremely difficult and indeed it wasn't. So, before you continue, take a look at this short video. Then, gather up your ingredients and let's get started. Similar to my donut dough recipe, I took my cue from and am a huge fan of this recipe, created by Midwesterner Maria S. The recipe as presented here is for a half-batch, from which I yielded 33 pączki.

Begin by setting 2 oz (1/2 stick) unsalted butter out in the open to room temperature, and then microwave 1 c milk for about 80 sec. After the milk has cooled just to the point where you can no longer see steam, get that into a large mixing bowl (be careful, as the vessel you've microwaved the milk in will still be hot). With the hook attachment ready to go on your mixer, mix in--on the lowest speed--the butter (it's okay if it's not completely at room temp) and 1/4 c granulated sugar.

When the butter is fully melted and incorporated into the milk, add a small splash of vanilla extract. Follow this up with 1/4 oz (1 package) active dry yeast and combine well. At this point, slightly increase the speed of the mixer and add, one at a time, three scrambled eggs.

With 4 c all-purpose flour ready to go (though you won't need all of this), slightly increase the mixing speed again and add the flour, 1/4 c at a time, until the dough no longer easily sticks to your fingers and pulls away from the sides of the mixing bowl. In the end, I only used 3.5 c flour. The dough should also fairly easily pull itself away from the hook attachment; shape this into a ball in the bowl and cover with a dish towel, etc. Set the dough aside in a warm, draft-free environment for about an hour to let the yeast do its work and allow the dough to double in size.

While the dough is rising, there's more than enough time to wash some dishes and then get to work on another food preparation. And just my luck, too. For last night's dinner, I knew I'd need to make a chocolate cake for one of the components for one of the desserts I'd be serving. Since I would be making the cake in a slightly smaller container, I adjusted the measurements to yield a little over half the usual cake batter for my adapted version of Hershey's perfectly dark chocolate chocolate cake (though this time I did use vegetable oil). After setting my oven to 350 °F and getting a small pot of water heating on mediuml, I mixed the dry ingredients [1 c + 2 tbsp granulated sugar, 1 c + 1 tbsp all-purpose flour, slightly less than 1/2 c dark cocoa powder, 2 tsp baking powder and a pinch of salt] and wet ingredients [1 egg, 1/2 c milk, 1/4 c vegetable oil and 1 tsp vanilla extract] in separate bowls.

After then combining those ingredients and then carefully folding in 1/2 c of the water (which should be boiling by this point; the resulting batter will be runny), I got this batter into a prepped baking dish, substituting the flour suggested by the Hershey recipe with dark cocoa powder for this purpose.

As the cake was baking, the dough had doubled in size. Get this onto a lightly floured work surface, and roll out the dough to about 1/4"-1/3" thickness. Using a 2" diameter round (I used my trusty moulding ring), cut out the dough and transfer the rounds onto a lightly greased plate or baking sheet. Cover the cut-outs with paper towel and allow these to rest and rise until they appear to have doubled in size. As you did the first time around, you get the best results if these are brought to rise in a warm, draft-free zone. [I set the plates onto my radiator.] Collect all the scraps and continue rolling and cutting until you can no longer feasibly do so. Noted at the top of this post, I was able to finangle 33 pieces. About halfway through this process, get about 1/2"-1" vegetable oil heating in a sauté pan.

By the time you're finished rolling and cutting your dough, the first batch should be ready to go. If you happen to have any extra dough, use that as your tester to test how hot the oil is; and then adjust accordingly. You don't want the oil to be too hot that the exterior browns quickly and gets cooked before the interior gets a chance. On the other hand, you don't want the oil to be too cold that the dough just becomes a lumpy, greasy mess. When the oil has been all figure out, carefully lift up each soon-to-be pączek and transfer them to the oil for frying. I say carefully because the dough will feel rather delicate and airy, and can deflate if handled without care. (This would be why the plates/baking dish are greased.)

After about 2-3 minutes on each side (depending on the heat of the oil), you should get something that looks like the above photo. Quickly remove as much oil as possible and let this cool until it can easily be handled, at which point you could use a piping bag to fill each pączek with Nutella (or whatever it is you actually want to eat). Also, be mindful of anything else you're cooking concurrently (in my case, the dark chocolate cake); just before taking it out of the oven, sprinkle chocolate chunks on top and get this back in the oven with the heat off. I had intended on the chunks being in the batter but with my previous experience of the chips/chunks sinking amidst the runny batter, I thought I'd stick to just using it as a topping. Feel free to take the cake out of the oven when you feel so inclined to dive right in.

Using a small knife, I made a small slit in all the pączki as they cooled. Using an improvised piping bag made out of a plastic baggy for half the pączki and a spoon for the other half, I finally got the spoon method to work better in my favour, scraping the spoon "outwards" against the edge of the slit to keep all the (now) filling inside. This also helped to not only create a cleaner look, but to do so in quicker time.

To finish off the pączki, I went ahead and made a simple sugar glaze, taking my cue from Wilton's, and grossly guesstimating the ingredients quantities for the confectioner's (powdered) sugar, milk and vanilla extract. In any case, dip the the top and bottom of each pączek in the glaze and transfer this to a slotted cooling rack to allow any excess sugar to fall as it cools.

After the sugar has hardened, transfer each  pączek  from the cooling rack to your presentation dish. Now don't these look incredibly scrumptious?

Well, they are! Light and airy, with a dense undertone because of the fact it's fried, each pączek on its own is relatively subtle and neutral (though not necessarily flavourless) in taste, thus allowing for the filling to take responsibility for the overall flavour. In this case, it was none other than the warm notes, familiarity and richness of the Nutella filling. In addition, I found the exterior sugar coating to also add a textural element to the otherwise soft pastry. And though I didn't do a proper calorie count on my pączki, I would argue these are particularly (less) guilt-free than store-bought ones that are slightly larger and deep fried en masse (though admittedly, this sentiment tends to apply to anything successfully made from scratch). In any case, pączki are usually eaten once a year for Fat Tuesday, so we might as well live up to the name on the one day of the year when calories should never be at the focal point. But since we've just passed that moment, click here to check out all of my Mardi Gras food photos and dream up what could be in store for next year.


  1. so after seeing this in your fb cover....i soooo want to make them!

  2. These are nothing like polish paczki its just another american doughnut variation

    1. true... though i never meant to pass these off as *the* authentic pączki. then again, everything i present here is always a variation (noting especially, my take) of traditional and often-times recreated dishes. all the same, the recipe i based mine off of at least seemed pretty legit to me. by definition, pączki are deep-fried pastries similar in consistency to doughnuts and similarly served with a filling of some kind. my apologies if you thought i claimed these to be the real thing.