A paczki from Bonomoni, the winner in Cincinnati’s first Best Paczki contest.
When Fat Tuesday rolls around, all those who pledge to give up something for Lent indulge for one last day. That’s the whole premise behind Mardi Gras, the French term for Fat Tuesday, or Fastnacht, the German version. Both days are marked with carnevale type celebrations, parades, bead throwing, moon pie eating (in Mobile, Alabama, the birthplace of Mardi Gras). And, around all that reveling, a European tradition of delectable donuts arose several hundred years ago. One tradition was round and cream filled, and another was square and sugar dusted.
The Polish have their paczki, the Austrians have their Krapfen, the Pennsylvania Germans of Lancaster, Berks, and York counties, have their Fastnachts; parts of Maryland have their Kinklings, or Kuecheles; New Orleans, has its beignets, brought by the French Acadians or Cajuns, King Cakes brought by the French Creoles, and its Catholic African Americans descended from West African slaves, have their fried rice dumplings, the calas. Italians have their castagnoles, fried cake puffs soaked in liqueur ; and cenci, crispy strips of fried pastry like funnel cake.
It’s interesting that even though Cincinnati has a huge German population, that the paczki is the pre-Lenten donut that is made, rather than the Fastnachts or Kuecheles of Germany. Fastnachts and Keucheles are different than the paczki, which is a dense, round, deep fried, sugar coated, jelly or custard filled donut. They are square, deep fried, and not typically filled, but powdered with sugar and sometimes cinnamon. The Austrian Krapfen is round and thin, but more like the Fastnachts and Keucheles.
But, somehow the Keuchele in Cincinnati was associated with Halloween. In German immigrant neighborhoods of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, kids used to say “kigele, kigele” while trick-or-treating at Halloween, indicating that at one time those donuts were made. But, there is no Greater Cincinnati bakery today that makes a keuchele donut.
The reason is probably that a paczki, is essentially what the Germans call a Berliner – a deep fried jelly filled donut. The Berliner is not in the U.S. associated as a pre-Lenten donut – it’s to be enjoyed all year round. The paczki of Poland were typically filled with prune paste, or rose hip cream, not the jellies or custards that we fill them with here in the U.S. And the local bakeries that make them are all German in origin. Cincinnati really didn’t have a huge Polish immigrant community like Northern Ohio and the upper Midwest. Those that came to Cincinnati from what would become the country of Poland were essentially German-speaking Europeans who lived in the duchy of Pommerania or the Prussian Empire.
This was the first year that the Polish Federation of Cincinnati judged the local paczkis at area bakeries. Bonomoni came in first with their strawberry filled, Regina for their raspberry filled, and Graeters for their custard filled. Other contestants were Servatti, North College Hill, Busken, and Holtman’s. My favorite is the lemon-filled paczki from Busken, but I also tried Servatti’s strawberry cream filled, which didn’t seem authentic.
So, when you’re enjoying your Cincinnati jelly or custard-filled paczki, you’re essentially eating a Berliner.