Polishing Up the Bakery

Sizzling oil too hot for chilly Litvaks

By Philologos

Published January 28, 2009, issue of February 06, 2009.
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Leave it to food to bring out the best in you! My appeal three weeks ago for information about ponchkes has so far brought no fewer than 28 responses, and more are still arriving. Here’s what I’ve discovered so far.

First, a response from food columnist Mimi Sheraton:

Ponchkes, yes indeed.  They are Polish and most famously baked at the sublime bakery, A. Blikle, which, the last time I looked, was on Nowy Swiat Street in Warsaw. These puffy, crisp-on-the-outside, jam-filled crullers were reported to be  favorites of Charles de Gaulle and Prince Radziwill, whose wife, Lee (Jackie Kennedy’s sister), is said to have had a hundred or so flown from Warsaw to London for her husband’s birthday party.

“They have no holes in the centers and are based on yeast dough. I would not be surprised if some Polish bakeries in the USA make them, but I have not checked, having indulged in a lifetime’s worth many years ago in Warsaw. They are especially favored for New Year’s Eve and for Shrove or Fat Tuesday when foods fried in oil are featured in various countries, just as latkes and sufganiyot are at Hanukkah. In Polish, they are pa˛czki, with an ogonek under the ‘a.’”

The ogonek under a Polish vowel indicates that that vowel is nasalized and followed by an “n” sound. And from Robert A. Rothstein, professor of Slavic and Judaic studies at the University of Massachusetts, we learn that the singular of pa˛czki is pa˛czek, which means a bud, and that the word took on its secondary meaning of a jelly doughnut as far back as the 15th century. “I would hazard the guess,” he writes, “that someone must have observed that just as buds burst or split open (pe˛kaja), revealing the flowers that are stored within them, so the fried dough breaks open to reveal the jelly, jam, or poppy seeds hidden within.”

Perhaps. And maybe what someone observed was that when you take a small ball of jelly-filled yeast dough and throw it into boiling oil, it quickly swells like a developing bud. In any event, pa˛czki, Professor Rothstein writes, are quite literally proverbial in Poland. Fortuna jednym umknie chleba, drugim smaz˙y pa˛czki, “Fortune snatches away some people’s bread and fries doughnuts for others,” is a way of saying that life isn’t always fair, while “to live like a doughnut in oil” is to be comfortable with who one is. (If I were a doughnut, I would find sizzling oil a bit too hot for comfort, but that may be because I come from a family of Litvaks.)

Not all pa˛czki are as gourmet as those baked on Nowy Swiat Street. Lawrence Schofer of Philadelphia recalls, “When I arrived as a graduate student in Poland in 1967, my host was very anxious that I should try out a Polish specialty that is especially popular at Christmas time — pa˛czki. I was astounded to see that this Polish ‘specialty’ was just a plain-old jelly doughnut, not unlike Israeli sufganiyot.” And Peggy Davis of Colrain, Maine, sends a recipe from Molly Lyons Bar-David’s 1964 “The Israeli Cookbook” for “Soofganiyot (Punchikot [sic!], Pfannkuchen, Filled Doughnuts)” that also affirms the identity of the sufganiya and the pa˛czek. (Pfannkuchen, although ordinary pancakes in most of Germany, are jelly doughnuts in and around Berlin.)

Ms. Sheraton’s surmise that Polish bakeries in America must also make pa˛czki has been confirmed by many of you. Alter Peerless writes that in his hometown of Cincinnati, a local bakery sells them “in January and February. They are doughnuts filled with strawberry or blueberry jelly, custard, or lemon.” John Gottschalk reports from Toledo, Ohio, which “has a very large Polish Catholic population,” that “eating ponchkies is a must event just preceding Mardi Gras; every bakery and grocery store in the Toledo area sells them.” Ruth Marcus of Springfield, Mass., tells us that this is also true of Detroit, where “paczkis are prepared by the hundreds of dozens, especially in Polish bakeries, the week of Ash Wednesday. As they are usually made with lard, I’ve never eaten any, but they are filled with jelly, custard, etc., and dusted with sugar.” Seymour Baxter, also writing from Detroit, is apparently not as strictly kosher, because, while also warning observant Jews away from pa˛czki, he informs us that “they are fat and delicious, filled with many kinds of jams, creams, etc., just like sufganiyot.” And Zev Sero, who grew up in Melbourne, Australia, recalls ponchkes from there, too. “Every Polish goy,” he writes, “knows that they are eaten on ‘Pa˛czki Day,’ which is traditionally the Thursday before Lent.”

There would seem to be no doubt, then, that pre-Lenten Polish pa˛czki or ponchkes and Israeli Hanukkah sufganiyot are the same creature. But was the ponchke a Hanukkah food in Poland? If it was, why didn’t it become one in America, too? And if it wasn’t, why did it become one in Israel? Tune in next week for more.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.

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