It's paczki time, but that time is fleeting.
Get one before they're gone.
These Polish-style doughnuts, pronounced POONCH-key, appear at bakeries across Western Pennsylvania after New Year's. But at most places, after next Tuesday -- Fat Tuesday -- they'll be gone for another year.
As the story goes, before the start of Lent, women would use up their lard, flour, sugar and the like in their pantries and turn them into these deep-fried and over-filled pastries.
The raised dough itself is typically richer than a regular doughnut, enriched with egg yolk, and the pastries tend to be round and rolled in granulated sugar. The filling can be everything from the traditional lekvar, or prune, and apricot to custard to chocolate and vanilla cream.
These are treats meant to help people get through many weeks of abstaining from decadent foods. That's why they're particularly beloved.
"That's the whole premise of the paczki -- all the good stuff people gave up is what they're made from," says Nancy Smith, who describes herself as the wife of the owner of a business that's big into them: Party Cake Shop. The bakery has two locations -- one in Mt. Lebanon and one in the city's Brookline neighborhood -- but the Brookline one is where everything is baked. And it's the one that has been festooned since early January with a "POONCH-key" banner. And it's the one that has a pazcki mascot in the front window. They even have a paper handout that explains what they are and how to pronounce them.
The bakery sells some 40 dozen of them a day, filled with various jellies and custard and creams. Paczki are so labor intensive, what with the proofing of the dough and the hand-filling, that for the whole early January-to-Fat Tuesday season, workers have to come in an hour early, which means some of them are starting at 1:30 a.m.
The cream-filleds are the most popular, but if you ask, they'll fill an old-school prune one for you, or give you plain ones, which some people freeze to fill later themselves. They sell for $1.25 a piece or a $12.99 a dozen.
As Mrs. Smith says, "It's a big doughnut. You're full when you eat it."
And, you have sugar and perhaps a little filling on your fingers and face.
Mrs. Smith says the bakery started making paczki 16 years ago at the suggestion of a young Polish woman who worked there. "The way the story goes is, when they started selling these, they were one of the few places that sold them and they really took off."
The wife of a former owner painted the mascot, which they used to prop up on the sidewalk out front.
But people who love pacski know when they can find them, and know they'd better find them before next week.
This past summer, Party Cake actually put pacski on the menu for a brief time to boost business -- and they did -- as the Brookline Boulevard business district was clogged by construction. Mrs. Smith has heard of other places that do "pacski in July" promotions, too.
But she says as popular as the pastries are, her bakery wouldn't consider selling them year-'round. "The whole deal of it is, you're supposed to eat it through Fat Tuesday."
And then you're supposed to miss them, until pacski time rolls around again.
Other places where you can find pacski include Kribel's (just up the street), Bethel Bakery, Oakmont Bakery, Keystone Bakery and many other bakeries, even supermarkets such as Giant Eagle. Some places have longer seasons (Oakmont Bakery has them up until Easter; tip o' the hat to Amy Watson for pointing that out).
If you'd like to try your hand at making your own, Michelle Norris just today posted a recipe, with her typically gorgeous photos, on her Brown Eyed Baker blog.
UPDATES: Reader Jennifer Daurora reported paczkis at McGinnis Sisters, too.
And Mindy Heisler at South Side's Pub Chip Shop says she'll be making them to sell Saturday through Tuesday. "I'm thinking Granny Smith apple, berry compote, vanilla custard. Maybe chocolate custard."
This "Fat Thursday" morning, S & D Polish Deli in the Strip District is offering them.
Another reader reminds that Good Samaritan Parish in Ambridge celebrates Paczki Day starting at 5 a.m. on Tuesday (pre-order at 724-266-6565).
Bob Batz Jr. photos (taken with a cell phone, as I'd left my camera battery at home)