I spent this last weekend in and around Appleton, Wisconsin, about three hours north of Chicago. Work-related, but there was time enough to explore the area, check out local restaurants, bookstores, liquor stores, bars…and bakeries.
Oh, yes, bakeries. As a kid growing up in Missouri, baked goods were some of my favorite treats: cream horns, cookies, pies, stollen, crumb cakes, and—from St. Louis’s long-closed Lake Forest pastry shop—a rare gooey butter cake. All vestiges and extrapolations of Northern European baking traditions, heavy on German and Swiss varieties.
So when I dropped by Manderfield's Home Bakery in nearby Menasha, I expected some of the bakeshop treats of my youth. Many were there, naturally. But also paczki, fried doughnuts that, while new to me, are probably old hat to anyone who grew up within driving distance of Chicago’s substantial Polish communities.
Paczki (pronounced in those parts “poonch-key”) are tacitly Catholic raised donuts generally available only from Fat Tuesday until Easter. They are often filled with fruit or, sometimes, cream. Some are glazed, some dusted in sugar. Others have no coating at all. And—get this, boozehounds—vodka is sometimes incorporated in the dough ostensibly to keep it from absorbing frying oil. I’m not sure I buy the story at all. Well, the rationale, anyway. Seems like temperature control would keep the oil in check. I’ll defer to the judgment of bakers on the effect of vodka in donut dough.
Since the bakery sells filled paczki only on Fat Tuesday itself and I was engaged elsewhere that day, I walked away with an unfilled version dusted simply with sugar. Where you’d expect a hole in a common American raised donut, each of Manderfield’s paczek has a flat, crisp disc covering one side, something like a tire's hubcap.
Sitting in the car, I cracked open a window to let in the smell of sugar and vanilla that swirled around the parking lot. Pulling apart the donut and cracking though the little crisp disc, I sent a cascade of sugar crystals down my black pea coat. I don’t need paczki every day, but I’ll make a special effort to be near a Polish bakery the next time Mardi Gras rolls around. And by next Lent, I'm going to get the bottom of this vodka thing.
Manderfield's Home Bakery
811 Plank Rd.
Menasha, WI 54952