You've heard of Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, but do you know about Fat Thursday? In Poland, it's a special day dedicated to eating sweets forbidden during Lent, especially doughnut-like pączki (pronounced "paunch-ki"). There are many recipe variations, but my personal favorite, courtesy of my grandmother, features a bit of orange zest, a "jigger" of rum, and a tart filling of plum butter, or powidl (though you can also fill them with rosehip, apple, or other preserves).
From what I can tell from her faded, handwritten notes, my grandmother preferred to fry them the traditional way, in three pounds of lard. "Fat" Thursday or not, times have changed. So while I've honored her recipe, I've opted to bake them instead (and also use milk rather than heavy cream). This way, you can enjoy them guilt-free throughout the Easter season, or even all year long.
Fill them with my spiced plum butter (recipe below) or use your own favorite jam or jelly. They will be delicious no matter what. As my grandmother would say, "Anechka (her pet name for me), smaczny!"
Yield: 2 dozen doughnuts
2 pounds plums
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 cup milk
2 packets (4½ teaspoons) dry active yeast
3 whole eggs (at room temperature)
6 egg yolks (at room temperature)
¾ cup sugar
½ cup (one stick) butter, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon salt
4½ cups flour, sifted
1 shot (3 ounces) rum
zest from one orange
1½ cups confectioner's sugar
3 tablespoons water
For Plum Butter: Wash and halve plums, and then remove pits. Combine plums and water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until plums are soft (about 10 minutes). Run softened plums through a food mill (or push through a sieve) and then return to the saucepan. Add sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and then simmer until thickened (about 20 minutes). Skim off any foam that surfaces. The plum butter is ready when it doesn't run when placed on a chilled plate. Makes about 2 cups.
For Pączki Dough: Heat milk to 110° F, and then dissolve yeast into it. In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat eggs and sugar together on medium speed until fluffy and pale yellow in color, periodically scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add cooled, melted butter and beat until incorporated. Stir in salt. With the mixer running on low, alternate adding flour and milk with dissolved yeast. Mix in rum and orange zest. Beat on high until dough blisters (about 10 minutes). Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in size (about 2 hours).
Line two 18x13-inch baking sheets with parchment paper. "Punch down the pączki dough" (I use this mnemonic device to help me remember to pronounce the doughnuts correctly as "paunch-ki"). Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface and stretch toward you until it's about a ½ inch thick. Cut into circles with a 2½-inch cutter or rim of a glass dipped in flour. Carefully transfer each dough circle to the baking sheets and stagger about an inch or so apart. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and allow dough to rise again until puffy (about 30 to 45 minutes).
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine confectioner's sugar with water to form a glaze. Set aside.
Heat oven to 375°F. Bake pączki for about 10 to 12 minutes, rotating pans halfway through, until golden-brown in color and a toothpick inserted into the center of one of the pączek comes out clean. Remove from the oven and immediately brush the tops and sides of each pączek with glaze. Allow to cool.
To Assemble: With a wooden skewer (or small knife), poke a small hole into the side of each pączek (pushing most of the way through). Add plum butter or other jam to a pastry bag fitted with a medium tip. Insert tip into the hole of each pączek and fill. The pączki will last for a day or two, but are best when eaten right away.