The parties already are starting down in New Orleans to usher in Mardi Gras with beads and king cakes, but in Northwest Indiana the Fat Tuesday preparations begin in the oven.
Local bakeries are gearing up by taking orders and some already offering the beloved, diet-breaking paczki.
The Polish treat is basically a sugar Bismark pastry — or jelly doughnut — with more butter, egg yolks and sugar.
The traditional flavors of paczki are apricot, prune and rose, said Craig Streicher, owner of Beck’s Crown Bakery in Crown Point. Though, he said his most popular flavor is the cream cheese-filled paczki.
“Our paczki stand out because they are authentic,” he said.
Streicher uses his father-in-law’s paczki recipe, which has been in use since 1969. Last year, Beck’s sold between 800 and 850 dozen. They already have at least that many orders so far.
“We also have an extreme paczki, or paczki on steroids,” Streicher said.
For this extra decadent version, Streicher said, the doughnut is split in half, lined with whipped cream, Bavarian cream on the bottom, and then filled with one of Beck’s pie fillings.
Beck’s isn’t the only bakery putting a spin on the paczki.
New this year, Calumet Bakery with various locations around the region, will be introducing a mango-flavored paczki.
“I started making paczki when I took over the bakery in the '80s, and they seem to get more popular around the area every year,” owner Kerry Moore said. “It think (paczki) is something different, and that’s why people like them.”
Moore said sometimes the bakery would have 10 people packing up orders of paczki for more than 12 hours. He said they sell a thousands each year.
“If we run out of paczki and get more orders, we’ll just keep making more,” Moore said.
Continuously baking paczki is not the way Jean Theile does it at Branya’s Bakery in St. John.
At Branya’s, customers have one day to get their hands on one of her square-shaped paczki because, like her recipe, Theile follows a long-standing tradition.
Traditionally, paczki were only enjoyed on Paczki Day (Fat Tuesday), Theile said.
“Paczki started in the Old World by everyone going through their larders and getting rid of all the fats, sugars and preserves before Lent,” she said. “Today, I’ll give up Facebook or texting, but in the old days, people didn’t have those things. Their extravagance was the sweets. So, they would put all of that into paczki to eat on Fat Tuesday. Then, Easter was the celebration when they brought back all those sweets.”
The recipe Theile uses is from her busia (Polish for grandmother).
“It had to be translated from Polish,” she said. “It’s straight from Poland and has probably been in use for more than 100 years. It’s the only recipe used in our family.”
Theile's paczki are square instead of the traditional round-shape to emphasize that hers are made from scratch and not from a box or mix.
The same goes for her fillings. All of the fillings in Branya's paczki are homemade.
Because they only sell paczki on Paczki Day, Theile said she and her husband are up for about 40 hours straight that day keeping up with orders.
With all the popularity of paczki here, it's almost baffling to travel just a state away or down to Indianapolis to find people don’t even know what the word means.
Theile said paczki are so popular here because of the heavy Polish population.
“The old recipes were brought to all the bakeries around Chicago,” she said.
Streicher from Beck’s agreed.
“The heavy Polish population and ethnic traditions of that culture spread from Chicago over to Northwest Indiana.”
Polish or not, paczki seem to be deeply woven into the culture of NWI residents.
Streicher, who said he has lines out the door and around the corner of his bakery on Fat Tuesday, probably sums up this sweet day best.
“On Paczki Day, everyone is Polish.”