Now we understand why the Catholics invented Mardi Gras (only seven weeks down the calendar, by the way). It’s that post-holiday, pass-the-sugarplum feeling, that midhibernation drowsiness that has everything to do with high caloric intake, high-octane libations and plenty of pastry. And if we’re of a mind to keep on keepin’ on, stuffing the cold, dark days leading up to Lent with maximum munching and damn the moderation, then Polish baked goods are the only true way: the Tao of paczki, the dharma of kolaczki. And as a destination for this quest, where else but the bakeries of Hamtramck?
Polish baking is a fine tradition nurtured by the frigid winters of Eastern Europe, where egg bread with raisins (chalka), cheesecake (sernik) and angel wings (chrusciki) are not just delicious treats, but necessary fuel against the merciless cold that locks down in November and stays put until spring (something like this past December in Detroit, only colder and longer). Among the great variety of specialties, the justly famous paczki (about which much ado is made in the Motor City each Fat Tuesday) are Poland’s legendary answer to the donut, filled with apple-, blueberry- or plum-flavored jellies, among others. Though sold all over town, from Farmer Jack to Kmart, these handfuls of pastry heaven are made best at emporiums of Polish authenticity such as the New Palace Bakery (9833 Joseph Campau, Hamtramck).
So we sloshed on over for a holiday visit and asked Vicki Ognanowich of New Palace for a guided tour of all those other cakes and things that Detroiters don’t ordinarily get revved up about. For instance, there’s makowiec (ma-ko-vyets), poppy seed cake that comes as a long glazed roll (as well as a variation made with almond paste), sliced and sold by weight. It’s moist, slightly heavy and great with a hot cup of tea. In fact, Polish pastries make the best sense with a steaming beverage. (In Poland, as in Russia and the Middle East, tea is served in a glass, with a spoon left in the glass to keep it from cracking when the water is poured.) Then we gazed lovingly at the kolaczki, which are crumbly little turnovers, filled with plum, apricot, raspberry or almond and sprinkled with powdered sugar. In various glass cases around the shop are pierniki (bun-sized plum- or apple-filled honey cakes); babka (raspberry- or lemon-flavored round cake); the cardiac-challenging sernik (a dense, white, sour cream cheesecake); then a terrific ground-nut pound cake (much more reasonable); as well as all kinds of cookies, tortes and rolls.
Before we can make a choice, Vicki tells us “not to forget the Polish rye,” which is the bakery’s most popular item. “Thin or medium slices?” she asks, and the aroma of fresh bread (chleb) brings us back to reality. After all, sweets are for special occasions (like winter!), but bread is for everybody, anytime. Just use a slice as accompaniment to pickled herring (sledz) or cabbage soup (kapusniak), and those sinful sugarplum visions just fade away.
Start the year off right, by eating healthy foods and spending less money. That’s what we always promise we’ll do, right? Well, two organizations want to help out. The Bread Machine Industry Association (yes, there is one) has fresh new recipes for that tired, old machine, available free at www.breadmachine.org. … And the Reynolds Kitchens, makers of all things thin and food-covering, suggest you try its foil-packet style of cooking to keep your portions in control and your food less greasy. Call 800-745-4000 or visit www.reynoldskitchens.com to order your free recipe brochure, “Exercise Good Taste.”Got a food tip? Write to Eaters Digest c/o this paper, or e-mail [email protected]