I have been lucky enough to live in two of America’s greatest cities: Chicago and New Orleans. When we lived in New Orleans, I was introduced to the holiday of Mardi Gras, the bacchic feast day before Ash Wednesday. Of course, New Orleans manages to stretch the holiday for about three weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday, which means work gets a little lighter for a month while traffic congestion gets a lot heavier (roads close, parades roll, etc.).
Well, tomorrow is Mardi Gras! Full disclosure: I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Mardi Gras. One of my first experiences was getting punched in the face when a fight broke out in a group as I passed, and then I got hit in the head by a bag of beads (why do they even throw those!), not to mention my interaction with everyone’s elbows. I’m kind of shocked that I even considered going back again. But I did, every single year. One year, we lived about two blocks away from the parade route and that was the best. When I got tired of being elbowed in the eye sockets, I just went home. Or bought a corndog. That would usually get me through the rest of the parade.
But now, being far, far from the action, seeing all of my friends posting about the 610 Stompers they saw and the floats they rode and the shoes they caught at Muses, I get nostalgic. Chicago doesn’t celebrate Mardi Gras the same way that New Orleans does (few cities do). But both have their own beloved, pre-Lenten treats: King Cake and Paczki.
Both of these desserts were born from the same necessity: to use up fats and sugars in the house before Lent begins. But they are very different.
Paczki, (pronounced punch-key, or some drawn-out-vowel variation of that if you include an authentic Chicago accent) were brought by Polish immigrants to Chicago and several other cities in the United States, and are similar to jelly-filled yeast doughnuts. Paczki traditionalists would probably punch me in the arm for reducing their beloved dessert to those terms, but it’s true. King Cake, at least the kind that is gobbled up by the millions in New Orleans around Mardi Gras, is essentially a large cinnamon roll that’s been braided into a ring, also optionally filled with cream cheese or fruit jam, and covered with icing and sprinkles.
To bring together my two favorite cities, in a way sure to blaspheme both of them (sorry, everybody!!), I made King Cake Paczki just in time for the holiday. This paczki dough is flavored with cinnamon before it is fried, filled with sweetened cream cheese, then topped with icing and sprinkled with colored sugar in the traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras colors: purple, yellow and green, which denote, respectively, justice, power, and faith.
King Cake Paczki
Makes approximately 1 dozen. Slightly revised version of this paczki recipe from The Spruce.
King Cake Ingredients:
3/4 cup milk
1 packet (2 1/4 tsp) active dry yeast
3 tbsp granulated sugar
2-2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out dough
1/2 stick (4 tbsp) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp rum or brandy
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp of salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
oil, or lard (traditionally used), for frying
Purple, yellow, and green sugar
Cream Cheese Filling Ingredients:
8 ounces of cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup powdered sugar
3 tbsp milk
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp cornstarch
King Cake Instructions:
In a measuring cup, mix the milk, dry yeast, and 1 tbsp of sugar. Allow to sit for about 10 minutes.
In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, cinnamon, and the remaining 2 tbsp of sugar.
In a separate, larger bowl, use a hand-mixer to beat together the unsalted butter and sugar until it becomes white and fluffy.
Add in the whole egg, egg yolk, and vanilla. Beat just until the egg is completely mixed in and the mixture appears consistent.
Add a little of the yeast mixture and then a bit of the flour mixture to the wet ingredients. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, stir until you no longer see white streaks of flour. Continue alternately adding the yeast mixture and flour mixture to the wet ingredients, stirring until you no longer see streaks of white flour between each addition. Once you have added and stirred all ingredients, the dough should begin to form a very loose ball. If it is still quite loose and wet, add in 1 tbsp of flour at a time until it just begins to form, but no more than a 1/4 cup of flour should be added. The dough will still be quite sticky.
Grease a very large bowl, pour the dough into the greased bowl, spray the top of the dough with cooking spray, or lightly brush with vegetable oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set the bowl in a warm spot to rise for about 1 hour.
After about an hour, when the dough has doubled in size, punch down the dough, cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise again for about 45 minutes.
On a lightly floured surface, pour the dough out and pat down until it’s consistently about 1/2-inch thick. Lightly flour the top of the dough and, using a 3-inch biscuit cutter, cut out rounds, placing them on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. You may need to re-roll the dough and pat down again to get 12 rounds.
Cover the baking sheet with a clean kitchen towel and allow to set in a warm spot for about 1/2 an hour.
While the rounds are rising again, add two inches of oil to a large, heavy-bottomed pan. Using a deep-fry thermometer, heat the oil to between 325 and 350 degrees.
Add two to three rounds to the hot oil at a time. Cook for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Flip the dough in the pan and allow to cook for another 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the finished paczki to a paper-towel-lined plate.
While the paczki are cooling, make your filling and icing. For the filling, use a hand beater to mix together the cream cheese, powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla. For the icing, whisk together the powdered sugar, milk, vanilla, salt, and cornstarch.
When the paczki have finished cooling, poke a hole into the side using a small, thin knife, without poking all the way through. Using a piping bag, fill each of the paczki with cream cheese. Drizzle the top with icing and sprinkle with colored sugars.
Don’t be weirded out by these tiny plastic babies you see. Traditionally, plastic babies are baked into king cakes, and the person who gets the piece with the baby buys the next king cake.
The many breaks required in this recipe to let the dough rise are great for, say, drinking champagne, because you’ve got to make sure to get that out of your house along with all the fats and sugars. And because it’s Mardi Gras.