Source: Sherman Publications

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To heck with the diet! Pass the paczki

by CJ Carnacchio

March 09, 2011

Judy Strzelecki, of Oxford, fills paczki with delicious vanilla flavoring. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio.
Joe Strzelecki drops the raised paczki into the bubbling hot lard to fry.
Calorie-laden bits of Heaven deep-fried in lard.

That's probably the best way to describe the hundreds of homemade doughnuts and paczki that Joe and Ethel Strzelecki crank out every year at their Oxford home on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday.

"Everybody just loves them," Ethel said.

For the last 25 years, family, friends and neighbors have been gathering for "Doughnut Day" at the Strzelecki home.

They literally spend hours devouring the sweet treats along with a variety of homemade soups and fresh-baked bread.

"Anybody that can get an invitation is welcome," Ethel said. "We never run out of food."

The annual tradition started with Joe's late mother, who emigrated from Poland to the United States at the age of 8, just after World War I.

Joe's mother hosted Doughnut Day for decades until finally handing the proverbial rolling pin over to Ethel.

"She couldn't do it anymore because the family had gotten too large," Ethel said.

Using Joe's mother's recipe for "yeast raised doughnuts," the Strzelecki clan makes three mouth-watering batches of glazed doughnuts and paczki in a single day an annual last hurrah before the Lenten season begins.

Each batch consists of 12 dozen, making for a grand total of 432 doughnuts and paczki. That's not a misprint.

Although some get smuggled out to meet their fate elsewhere, most get eaten that day.

"As we're making them, they're eating them," Ethel said. "We don't have any left the next day."

Doughnut Day in the Strzelecki household is a mix of lively family reunion and factory assembly line.

It all starts in the kitchen where the dough is mixed, rolled, cut into individual doughnuts and paczki, then placed on cookie sheets coated in flour.

Traditionally, Ethel gets everything started. She is later joined by multiple generations of Strzelecki women who lend their flour-covered hands to the process.

"This year I'm supervising," Ethel said.

The doughnuts and paczki are placed in a heated room for about 35 minutes, so they can rise. Once they're ready, they travel to the basement, where they're deep-fried in lard that's right, lard until golden brown.

Joe and his granddaughter, Liz Strzelecki, handle this step. "We can do five or six at a time in the fryer," Joe said. "The process is continuous. You'd be surprised, it goes pretty fast."

Once they're fried and allowed to rest for a few minutes, the doughnuts and paczki are then dipped in a sugary glaze.

For the doughnuts, that's the end of the journey, however, for the paczki, there's still one more step.

Each paczek (the singular form of paczki) is pumped with a different delicious filling. Flavors include vanilla, lemon, raspberry, plum butter and chocolate.

Ethel enjoys the chocolate, while Joe likes the lemon and vanilla. "If I'm lucky, I get to taste one," Ethel noted.

They also fry up plenty of doughnut holes, a favorite among the kids. "You can't make enough of them," Ethel noted.

This year's Doughnut Day brought 56 people to the Strzelecki home.

"That's a small crowd this year," Joe noted.

The couple's used to larger crowds given their 52 years of marriage yielded six children, 23 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.

Although making and eating the Polish treats is fun, it's the conversations, hugs and opportunity to catch up with family and friends that Joe and Ethel enjoy the most.

There's nothing sweeter than that.