Aficionados of the paczek (PON-check), or Polish donut, more often known in its plural form, paczki (POONCH-key), are gearing up to celebrate Paczki Day in Hamtramck. Essentially a jelly-filled donut, Hamtramck's Polish Christians will swear off the confections for the 40 days of Lent, but not before gorging on them in the days leading up to Fat Tuesday on Feb. 20. If this seems like small food news, note how even local donut franchises are getting into the act. But those passionate about paczkis say there's no substitute for an authentic paczek from Hamtramck's Polish bakeries.
As if to put that wisdom to the test, Hamtramck Mayor Karen Majewski issued a challenge of sorts to Hamtramck's New Martha Washington Bakery: Make Michigan's largest paczek for the upcoming festival.
You couldn't pick a better setting to illustrate the cultural pastiche that is Hamtramck. A recent weekend day found the bakery's Sandy Bakic spelling an exotic name on a classic pink-and-white birthday cake, icing out "Happy Birthday Khan" for one of the bakery's customers. Bakic's family has owned New Martha Washington Bakery since 1973.
As she expertly spins icing in the shape of frosted flowers onto a decorating tool, it's hard to not be impressed by her skill. Asked what the decorating tool is called, she says she can't recall. "I learned that when I first studied baking at 13." It shows.
Sending the satisfied customer on his way, Bakic is ready to talk paczki. The mayor's office called Feb. 3, and the phone call turned the family's life upside down.
"When the mayor called," she says, "Mom said, 'Go for it.'"
"Mom" is Ivanka Petrovic, standing nearby, and she's all enthusiasm. She releases an excited storm of gestures, half describing, half acting out the ordeal: "It's fun! Since we started, we was laughing and laughing. It's hard work! 'Oh! It's falling!' My grandson, since he come in, he's laughing and laughing."
Bakic dryly observes, "We got Daddy into something he wasn't expecting."
After the call came in, the patriarch of the family, Petar Petrovic, began experimenting the same night. On and off, the family has been working feverishly in the run-up to the Paczki Day ceremony. Clearly, it's a matter of family honor.
To listen to Bakic tell it, you'd guess it takes nerves of rubber to make these oversized paczkis. "It's a real challenge to work with yeast-based dough. How it comes out depends on the temperature of the oil, the weight, the timing, even the humidity and weather outside. Take it out too soon and it falls flat. Overfrying makes it too dry. You want a golden color and lightness."
In the tidy baking area in the back, time seems to have frozen somewhere in the 1960s. There isn't a digital readout in the place. Massive Hobart mixers and 50-pound bags of flour are lined up against one wall, and in the back is a deep fryer that takes 100 pounds of vegetable shortening at a time. If it takes heavy equipment to make a massive donut, they have what it takes here, including electric pumps to fill the confections with jellies that run from raspberry to prune to Bavarian cream to even empty ones topped with sugar.
Bakic speaks of baking as food science in action. "Cooking is recipes," she says, pointing out how a pinch more or less of tarragon won't make or break a dish. "But baking is formula. You have to get it all right. It's either done or it doesn't come out the way it's supposed to."
In true scientific fashion, Bakic has saved all the early experiments. The first attempt was 16 inches in diameter, but weighed more than five pounds because it absorbed too much oil. "It was oily, crumbly and flat, and it wasn't done inside. It just won't fry at that size."
The second attempt had better color, and weighed in at 3 pounds, 14 ounces. There was a minor tragedy when half of it fell in.
By Feb. 2, Petrovic's creations were nearing perfection. He made three paczkis, all weighing about 27 ounces, light enough to eat, with good texture, and, at more than 9 inches in diameter, big enough to fit the bill. But, at press time, the family is still preparing to make one final, unbeatable batch in time for Hamtramck's VIPs. If anybody can do it, they can.
At 11 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 17, Michigan's largest paczek will be presented at the corner of Holbrook and Joseph Campau. The event will kick off a weekend of celebrations in and around Hamtramck.
New Martha Washington Bakery is at 10335 Joseph Campau, Hamtramck; 313-872-1988.
Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]