Fat Tuesday: Metro Detroiters hitting paczki heavy

Charles E. Ramirez, and Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Hamtramck — As far as Paczki Day goes, Metro Detroiters just eat it up.

Abbey Odunlami, 35, of Detroit, displays his box of paczki at Bozek's Market this morning.

And on Fat Tuesday — the day before Lent begins — throngs of people lined up outside of bakeries, like the New Palace Bakery on Joseph Campau Street in Hamtramck, to pick up a dozen or two or three of the deep-fried Polish pastries stuffed with jelly, custard or other tasty concoctions.

Lent is the 40-day period leading up to Easter when many Christians give up indulgences, such as sweets.

So, to get ready for the season’s start on Ash Wednesday, Polish families emptied their pantries of temptations such as sugar and butter. They turned those ingredients into the doughnut-like treat that’s synonymous with Fat Tuesday in Metro Detroit.

Doesn’t matter if you call them poonch-key or punch-key, long lines of people say they’re just plain delicious. A paczek, a single doughnut, weighs about 5 ounces. Depending on the filling, it can have 400-600 calories.

At Sisters Cakery in  Warrendale, as in Hamtramck, mixes are considered cheating and a proper paczek is rolled and stamped, not sliced.

In the yellow-canopied storefront west of Greenfield Road on Warren Avenue, Hassan Bazzi was making his selections while his cell phone buzzed with impatient texts from relatives: Are you and the pastries on your way?

Bazzi, a 33-year-old attorney, had already been to work. Now he was buying six dozen and preparing to make five stops before he returned to his office.

“These are the real authentic ones,” he said, and in his learned opinion as an officer of the court, “the buttercream is the best.”

Behind the counter, two of the four sisters who gave the shop its new name – new meaning 23 years ago – had been busy since 5 a.m.

“Are these yours?” Susan Radovanovic asked Bazzi, pointing to two boxes on a counter.

“No,” interjected Diane Plichta, and she laughed. “I’ve been watching.”

She and her daughter Jennifer, 20, “come all the way from Milford,” said Plichta, 62. It’s a family tradition dating back four decades, since the neighborhood was mostly Eastern European.

Now a lot of the nearby businesses’ signs are in Arabic – but paczki are a universal language. While Radovanovic , 68, and Kata Zlatich, 65, boxed orders and renewed acquaintanceships with once-a-year friends, a crew of four churned out replacement paczki in the back room.

The sisters’ father, George Milosevich, bought what was then Tysar’s Bakery in 1970. Paczki were a welcomed treat in the neighborhood, but hardly a national or even regional phenomenon.

If you work it right, like Ron Kurkowski of Livonia, today they’re a year-round treat.

“Guess what I had this morning,” he said. The answer: one prune and one custard, wrapped in foil and frozen last Fat Tuesday.

Wrap them in a wet paper towel, microwave them for 30 seconds, let them sit for a minute or two, and — okay, he conceded, they’re not as good as new. But they’re still good.

At Sisters Cakery in Detroit’s Warrendale sector, Kata Zlatich helps Dearborn attorney Hassan Bazzi with his order of six dozen paczki. Zlatich’s father bought the business in 1970.

Kurkowski, 85, and his wife Pat, 86, bought two dozen. Then they added a pair, both custard, to eat in the car on the way to their next appointment …

With his doctor.

What the heck. He’s alive so far, and he had a three-word explanation for any excess: “It’s Paczki Day.”

Brandy Weigand, 34, of Detroit, said she comes to the New Palace Bakery every year to buy four dozen paczki.

“My grandma grew up around the corner from here,” she said while waiting in a line to get into the bakery that wrapped around the corner. “It’s just something we do. I come here because I know they’re good.”

Weigand said she’s going to get mostly Bavarian cream-filled and prune-filled treats and she’s going to take a dozen to her grandma, Irene Sakowski, who’s now 91 and lives in Warren. “That’s what my family likes because they’re the traditional ones.”

She said she only buys paczki in Hamtramck even though they’re available just about everywhere in Metro Detroit.

“They’re just not the same at other places,” Weigand said. “You can tell the difference. You really can. I’ve tried them at other places and I was like ‘Oh no.’”

New Palace sells its paczki with traditional fillings such as raspberry, lemon, custard, and plum. It has also introduced some less conventional flavors over the years, including caramel cream, cookies and cream as well as peanut butter and jelly.

This year, the bakery is offering three new flavors: strawberry cheesecake, Fruity Pebbles and Cocoa Puffs.

Jeff Palac, 27, of Wyandotte, said this year is the first time he's come to the Hamtramck bakery to buy paczki. He works midnights at a pharmaceutical company and stopped by on his way home, he said.

"I did some research on the Internet and this seems like the place to come, it seems like a popular place," he said.

He said he's going to pick up a couple of dozen to take into work Wednesday and some extra for his family.

He also said he's looking forward to trying the bakery's strawberry cheesecake paczki. "That one sounds really good," Palac said. "I'm definitely going to get some of those."

By 7a.m. Tuesday, a crowd had lined up at the New Palace Bakery in Hamtramck to get the sweet treat synonymous with Fat Tuesday in Metro Detroit.

Less than a half-mile from the bakeries on Jos Campau, Bozek's Market, an eastern European deli and bakery, is also selling paczki or what the shop calls "tiny fat bombs of sugar heaven."

No need to line up, though, since the market has stacks of racks of the delights made in its kitchen in the store's bakery department. It also ships the paczki to the store's location on Van Dyke near 19 Mile in Sterling Heights. It's been making and selling its paczki since 1991, said Mike Bozek, who owns the stores with his family.

Diane Frkan, the store's afternoon shift manager, said the market is the best-kept secret in Hamtramck for paczki. "You can walk in and walk out in minutes," she said.

She said even though paczki are sold across Metro Detroit, the ones in Hamtramck are still the best.

"The difference with the paczki here than the ones you can get anywhere else outside of Hamtramck is for us, it's a labor of love," she said. "If you want the taste of traditional paczki, you have to drive the extra mile and spend the extra dollar."

People take their paczki seriously in Metro Detroit.

Bozek, who expects to make and sell more than 30,000 paczki this year, agreed.

"I'm sure a lot of stores sell something that you just have to add water to and call it a paczki and those are probably good, too," he said. "But we start from scratch and we use all-natural ingredients." 

For Fat Tuesday, the Hamtramck store's kitchen is busy around the clock cranking out the pastries. Other times of the year, it's crafting another Polish delight: homemade pierogi.

Abbey Odunlami, 35, of Detroit, picked up half dozen paczki at Bozek’s Market.

“I just got kind of a variety: custard, strawberry, and blueberry.”

He said he regularly shops at Bozek’s and decided to buy some of the sweets.

“I haven't bought paczki in quite a while, probably since I was a child,” he said.