“If an old-fashioned doughnut were to hit you in the face, you could get a black eye from it".” - Jędrzej Kitowicz (ca. 1800)
Happy Pączki Day, everyone!
For those unfamiliar, pączki are kind of like jelly donuts but (somehow) richer and deliciouser. In the United States, these are a staple of the Upper Midwest - particularly Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee - emanating from Polish-American communities that settled in those areas. They’re traditionally consumed on Mardi Gras as a way of consuming all the sugar, flour, and fats in the household before giving them up during the Lenten season.
David was delighted to find them served on campus by the Polish club at Dominican University, but they have spread throughout the land, including in the Gabriele residence in Virginia.
Since David is visiting Matt this week and as it’s Pączki Day, we decided to make some this year as well. But being the nerds we are, we wondered about their origins. Would we be so lucky as to find a medieval origin to this delicious sugar bomb? And the answer was… yes and no.
Wikipedia (don’t judge us) had this to say:
Kitowicz, a late 18th-century Polish churchman and courtier, delighted at some of the innovations the Polish king introduced to cuisine by bringing in in some French chefs. He wrote:
French pastries, layer cakes, pasties, sponge cakes, and the like— doughnuts even—were brought to the highest level of perfection. If an old-fashioned doughnut were to hit you in the face, you could get a black eye from it. But the new doughnuts were so plump and light that you could squeeze them in your hand and they would swell and ooze like a sponge, so light that a mere puff of wind might whisk them off the plate.
Not a pleasant thought to eat a doughnut so dense that it might brain you, but honestly we’ve probably all had pastries that fit that description even now. That said, Kitowicz is just saying that pączki existed before, but not in what form, nor where they came from or how long they’d been around.
So, we kept digging and although we can’t quite find a specific Polish pączki (let us know in the comments if you find one!), yes, Virginia, there were medieval donuts. Lots of them.
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For example, a 15th-century Egyptian cookbook describes a ring-shaped zulābiyya (fried dough) filled with marzipan that was consumed as a treat. Here the marzipan is dried for a day before being dipped into a batter scented with rose water.
On the other side of the continent, the British Library wrote about a 14th-century manuscript in Old English with its own set of recipes. There, a crispel was a round pastry is fried in oil or grease and then basted in warm honey.
Turns out that people throughout the Mediterranean - and beyond - loved frying dough and making it sweet because, well, it’s just really tasty. So today while enjoying your own fried dough, just remember that you’re carrying on a proud tradition that stretches back hundreds of years. And then, go on, have another one.
The idea of course being to deny the body some of its pleasures in order to prepare the mind for the celebration of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
The first-ever German cookbook, "Das Buch von guter Speise" published ca. 1350, had a recipe for Krapfen, the German version of a pre-Lenten donut. Pastry chef Martin Schoenleben has translated the recipe into modern measures and provided instructions for anyone who wants to try it out: https://cafeschoenleben.de/ein-krapfenrezept-aus-dem-jahre-1360/
Chef Schoenleben doesn't mention how much grated lemon, vanilla and mace (geriebene Citrone, Vanille, Macis) to add to the dough. I'd suggest trying 1 1/2 to 2 Tbsp fresh lemon zest (= 1 1/2 to 2 tsp dried lemon peel); 1/2 Tbsp vanilla extract (= 3/4 tsp ground vanilla beans), or a little more if you want a stronger vanilla flavor; and 1 tsp ground mace, or the equivalent amount of nutmeg.
Here is a 13th c. recipe for "Mistembecs" from the always interesting Recette Médiéval https://recettemedievale.fr/mistembecs/ (I always cite blogs!)
"Tractatus de modo preparandi et condiendi omnia cibaria :
Mistembec hoc modo fit: accipe de pasta tritici lauata, quantum uolueris, et aliquantulum de amido in aqua tepida dissoluto; de quo distempera predictam pastam ut fiat ad modum sorbitii; et facias descendere per scutellam in fundo et in latere foramen habende, et fac descendere in oleo feruido uel sagimine porci, diuersas formulas ad placitum pertrahendo. Quibus per decoctionem induratis, et ad hoc calidis existentibus, proice in syrupo de zuccaro aut de melle facto, et protinus remoue.
Syrupus hoc modo fit: dissolue zuccaram in aqua bulliente. Post, clarifica ouorum glarea quo utere.
Quidam inspissant ad modum paste et agitant in tabula cum ligno rotundo ad creandum (?) formulas roseas protrahendo. Post, in oleo bulliri permitunt."