With the region's large Polish population, the paczki definitely shares the spotlight this time of year.
Unlike Fat Tuesday, Paczki Day often has two masters: there's the Thursday before when a lot of Poles will hit their favorite bakeries, like Oak Mill, and stock up for the weekend. Then there are those who consider Paczki Day the same as Fat Tuesday, which means legendary bakeries, like Weber's, will be opening their doors Tuesday at 4 a.m.
During the course of the year, they come for the bread, sweets and cookies. But in mid-February, it's all about the paczki. At Weber's Bakery, which has been manipulating flour, butter and sugar for eight decades on the Southwest Side, the Polish sweet is all the rage, especially on Fat Tuesday, also known as Paczki Day.
"We open at 4 a.m. instead of 4:30 just because want to get them before they go to work. And its become a Fat Tuesday tradition here," said owner Michael Weber.
The dough is made by combining standard ingredients: yeast, salt and sugar plus water, flour and whole eggs, with a bit of vanilla and shortening for richness. The dough is worked for just a few minutes, with the aid of giant dough hook. Once combined, it's kneaded on a flat surface, stretched, then placed into a special machine that cuts it into manageable spheres.
"It's a fried yeast-raised dough, filled with different fillings. We have 12 varieties here. Traditionally it was just filled with prune filling," Weber said.
But before the fillings, the frying. The paczki rest a bit first, so they can proof and increase in size. Then, they're dropped into hot lard - yes, I said lard - and fried on each side. Special wooden dowels are used to turn them over, ensuring an even fry. Once they're cooled, any number of fillings can go in, but the most popular seems to be the strawberry. For a final touch, a brief roll around in some granulated sugar, providing a sweet shield around that filled-and-fried dough. Weber says the tradition has spread well beyond the local Polish community.
"It's growing every year, Chicago's becoming a huge Paczki Day city, I think," Weber said.
Not all paczki are created equal of course in Chicago. Over time, some have been gussied-up, split in two and filled with whipped cream. Others are stuffed with rosewater jam, a particular favorite among poles.
7055 W. Archer Ave.
Oak Mill Bakery
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2314 E. Rand Rd., Arlington Heights
2204 W. North Ave.