food,  Poland,  traditions

The sweetest day of the year!

As promised, this week’s post is published on Thursday instead of Monday. Why? There is a perfectly valid explanation. This Thursday is a very special day, the sweetest day of the year in Polish culture. It is called Tłusty Czwartek, which literally translates to the Fat Thursday and today, you not only should, but you are morally and culturally obliged to eat as many sweet fried pączki (pronounced pownch-key), as possible. And remember, according to a jocular Polish saying, the calories consumed this day do not count, even if you are on a strictest of the diets. Why, then, don’t you make yourself a cup of coffee, which pairs perfectly with pastry, grab a doughnut, or if you cannot find it chose something very sweet and preferably deep fried, and spend a moment with me. As you can see, I’m already prepared.

As majority of Europe has been predominantly Christian for thousands of years, many current traditions used to be of a religious origin. Spring is the new beginning, not only for nature, but for some kind of moral and ethical revival of us, human beings. To mark the time when, according to the Gospels, Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the desert being tempted by Satan before, eventually, being crucified and resurrected, Christians observe Lent. These fasting days may not seem as strict as Ramadan, when Muslims are allowed to eat only after the sunset. In reality, even traditionally-only religious people in many countries abstain from any activities which can be seen as “frivolous” or bringing joy and pleasure. Believe it or not, when I was a little child, many Polish used to refrained from eating meat, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol or even having sex starting from the Ash Wednesday until the Easter Sunday, with the exception for March 19th (Saint Joseph’s Day). Obviously Europe at the end of winter is not a happy and colourful place abundant in fresh products so for people like my grandmother the religious context was only an addition to forced fasting anyway.

As I mentioned above, the Lent starts on the Ash Wednesday. The exact date changes each year because it depends on a date of Easter. The day before is observed in Anglo-Saxon countries as a Pancake Tuesday. It is celebrated in a similar way to the Fat Thursday, because you should eat fried food. And I do not like pancakes, I’m sorry.

I do love crepes, though. They are typical for Poland, where the American or British style pancakes are considered a bit sloppy. The crepes, on the other hand, should be as thin as a batiste handkerchief, and majority of Polish mothers can make them that way. And even if they are not as fancy as Crêpes Suzette, they still taste great. By the way, the picture presents a Korean gateau-like crepes’ rainbow-coloured cake; not only the crepes looked differently, they also tasted differently depending on a layer. Yummy.

A word of advice for anyone who visits Poland right at the end of Carnival. Since the Lent was always considered rather strict, this time of the year when you are still “allowed” to eat and drink was taken very seriously. We may not be known for fancy dress parties, but the amount of alcohol can kill the ones who are not accustomed to. The Tuesday right before the Ash Wednesday may be an innocent Pancake day in the US, but in Poland it is the day of “śledzik” (literally a small herring, but its cultural meaning is of a small appetizer or refreshment accompanying vodka). It is celebrated all over Poland and if you would ever go to the Catholic church in in my country to observe the beginning of the Lent, those people around you are not extremely sad or serious, they simply suffer terrible cases of hangover!

Back to pączki. It is a plural noun, because they never exist alone, unless we talk about the last one left, then it is pączek. They are a fist-size, more or less, donuts and filled traditionally with rose petal marmalade, though my mom’s always made them with home made plum confiture. Nowadays, you can find them filled with different custards, liquors, chocolate. Whichever works for you, though it always has to be some kind of fruit jam for me. Oh, and one more thing, they are always glazed with icing and sometimes sprinkled, usually with orange zest or shredded coconut. During Fat Thursday there are more than 100 millions of them being sold all over Poland. Can you believe it? It is said that the more you eat, the better the rest of the year will be, so why risking?

Pączki are not unique to Polish cuisine, you can think of them as much older (dating back to the Middle Ages, though in a savoury version first) siblings of the American jelly doughnuts or German berliners, and as it is the case with siblings, the younger the kid is, the less parents care (before you feel offensive, I’m also the youngest). Polish way to make them, always involve lots of fresh and high quality ingredients to make very rich dough with eggs and egg yolks, yeast, milk with added strong alcohol – do not worry it’s a kids friendly food, the alcohol evaporates during frying, its role is to prevent the dough to absorb too much oil. So even though they are very sweet and definitely not healthy, they get all of it from carbs, not fat.

I remember back in 2013, when I celebrated my first London Fat Thursday, I couldn’t find proper pączki anywhere in the area. Because I promised my husband to bring him some to work so he could treat his colleagues, I ended up buying 2 boxes of American doughnuts from Krispy Kreme. I wasn’t too happy, but as in Poland we say “jak się nie ma co się lubi, to się lubi co się ma” (which literally translates to “if you do not have what you like, you like what you have”), so beggars can’t be choosers. When I was taking the Tube, a kid aged 3 or 4 was hungrily looking at those open boxes so I decided to share. It seemed that I got at least 1 fan of Polish traditions. You cannot believe how happy he was learning that this day, it is one’s duty to eat lots of sweets!

That’s all for now, I’m going to visit my husband at work, and just like everyone in Poland today, I’m bringing some pączki with me.

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