Around the first of the year, you start to see paczki — the pillowy, sugar-coated and jam-filled pastry — on bakery shelves. Paczki traditionally hails from Poland, and we can thank Pittsburgh’s strong Polish-American immigrant history for this seasonal pastry.
Pronounced “POHNCH-kee,” they are much harder to say and spell than they are to eat.
But don’t confuse these confections with doughnuts.
While there are similarities to their jelly-filled counterparts, paczki is made with a richer, yeasty dough along with eggs, lard and milk.
In Poland, “Tłusty czwartek” or Fat Thursday, was the day to practice a bit of gluttony and enjoy paczki and other desserts with family and friends. In America, we often celebrate Fat Tuesday (or Mardi Gras), so the practice of adding paczki as part of the revelry happens that day instead.
Fat Thursday (Feb. 16) and Fat Tuesday (Feb. 21) are the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, or the start of Lent for many Christians. Because the ingredients are things most people avoided during these 40 days prior to Easter, eating paczki is something to indulge in before beginning Lenten fasting.
While it’s customary for these deep-fried doughs to have a prune filling, it is also common to see other fruits, custards and creams. Along with the fruit inside, the classic outer coating is powdered sugar but you may see glazes or crispy sugar-covered alternatives.
Paczki means “package” in Polish, and in this instance, good things really do come in small packages.
Here are a few Pittsburgh-area bakeries that offer these pre-Lenten sweets.
The best Pittsburgh paczki
Potomac Bakery has been family owned and operated since 1927. In addition to the cookies and cakes, the Dormont bakery partakes in the paczki tradition. The Polish treats go fast, so they are first come, first served at the counter. 1419 Potomac Ave., Dormont
Bethel Bakery has been making baked goods for more than 60 years, and the seasonal paczki are just as delicious as the year-round menu items. With a dozen different flavor options to choose from, there is a paczki for every palate. 5200 Brightwood Road, Bethel Park and 2500 Washington Road, North Strabane
S&D Polish Deli is a one-stop shop in the Strip District for finding both imported products from Poland as well as traditional Polish dishes made from recipes your grandmother would have whipped up in her own kitchen. For the Easter holiday, they add paczki to the menu. 2204 Penn Ave., Strip District
Prantl’s Bakery may be famous for the burnt almond torte, but rest assured it also makes a delicious paczki. The pastries are only made for a limited amount of time, so be sure to check frequently to see when you can order your dozen. While Prantl’s usually offers online orders and even national delivery on some of their confections, the paczki are phone-in, limited-time orders. Multiple locations: Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, North Side, Greensburg and North Huntingdon
The award-winning Party Cake Shop does not disappoint in the paczki department. The Brookline bakery fills its Polish delights with custard, buttercream or jam and finishes them with a coating of granulated sugar. The doughnut-like treats are available until Fat Tuesday. 706 Brookline Blvd., Brookline
Oakmont Bakery is already a well-known stop for sweets so, of course, it creates seasonal paczki. Normally available from the beginning of January through Easter, the bakery has 17 different flavors to choose from in addition to the original prune filling. 1 Sweet St., Oakmont
If you have a craving after Lent, Graham’s Bakery in Castle Shannon makes paczki all year long. This family-run bake shop has been crafting delightful desserts since the 1960s, with three generations of baking under their belts. 300 Mt. Lebanon Blvd., Castle Shannon