Baking fresh pączki, the round Polish pre-Lenten dessert bursting with filling, is not for the faint of heart.
“What kind of music do you listen to?” said Scott Smith, owner and head baker of Party Cake Shop in Brookline. He’s wearing baking whites and a surgical mask because of a flour allergy. Talk about a love for baking.
“I am a classic-rock-kind-of-person,” I reply.
“Alright, that’s my kind of person.” It’s 12:15 a.m. on a Tuesday. The pączki dough is about prepped.
“Everything I do is timing,” Smith says as he scopes the flour, then the sugar into the industrial-sized mixer. Every ingredient is scaled.
“Super precise? No. Precise? Yes,” said Smith with a smile.
Party Cake Shop started making pączki around 1991. “This is the recipe they [the original owners] were using when I bought the place. I haven’t changed any of the recipes from when Jack Dolan opened this place in 1961,” said Smith. “The only thing I ever wanted to change was the name on the paycheck.”
Pączki is only available for a limited time every year. For Party Cake Shop, pączki season runs from mid-January through Fat Tuesday (this year it’s February 25).
This particular Tuesday, Smith is making dough for 42 dozen pączki. There are a variety of fillings – apple black raspberry jelly, apricot, buttercream, chocolate buttercream, lemon, peanut butter buttercream, strawberry buttercream and vanilla custard. Prune, a more traditional filling, is also available but must be ordered in advance.
The number of pączki increases as the week continues. The more pączki, the earlier Smith’s start time. On Fat Tuesday, Smith will arrive in the Shop, after the mile walk from his home, between 8:00 and 9:00 p.m. the night before.
Party Cake Shop has experienced about a 40% increase in pączki sales compared to last year. Four weeks into the 2019 season, they sold 717 dozen pączki. After the first four weeks this year, they are at 1,200 dozen sold. That is 14,400 pączki!
It is 12:38 a.m. Once the pączki dough is mixed, it rests for 20 minutes. After resting, Smith scoops the dough, all 68 lbs., onto the center table. “It’s definitely not a desk job,” he says. The dough is then divided into 5 lb. pieces, covered to avoid drying out and rests for another 10 minutes.
There is no resting for Smith when the dough rests. He is never not in motion, prepping other baked goods to ensure the freshest products when the door opens at 6:00 a.m.
Smith bought Party Cake Shop with his wife, Nancy, in 2009 from their cousin, George Doyle. “I started working here at seventeen as a clean-up kid. At the time, the original owner, Jack Dolan [George’s brother], asked if I was interested [in baking],” said Smith.
“At that point I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll give it a shot.’ So, he gradually trained me while I was doing clean-up.” There wasn’t a role available for Smith immediately, so he worked at BreadWorks for 23 years before returning to where his love for baking began.
Now 1:19 a.m., Smith pushes each 5 lb. piece of pączki dough onto a teardrop tray. The tray enters a machine which efficiently cuts the dough into 36 balls. They are placed on a rack and into a dry proofing box to raise for 35 – 40 minutes.
Smith’s fellow baker, Matt York, is then passed the pączki baton. York clocks in around 1:30 a.m.
Deep frying pączki is a rhythmic two-minute drill. Three dozen pączki dough balls are placed halfway in scolding oil for about a minute and a half. York flips them with donut flipping sticks, and submerges them entirely for another 35 seconds. Once they are removed from the fryer, while still warm, the pączki are rolled in sugar.
By 2:00 a.m., the first three dozen pączki are fried, coated in sugar and placed on a rack to cool. Here Comes the Sun by The Beatles fills the background announcing the decadent pastry’s entrance.
At 3:00 a.m., the front staff, Cat Thomas and Colleen York, roll in. Colleen has been working at Party Cake Shop for 42 years and has more energy at this early call-time than my one-year-old. She gives me a boost. It’s time to fill the pączki!
Most of the pączki are filled using a puffer machine, which Thomas gets to work on right away. The buttercream, because of its thickness, is pumped into individual pączki by hand. According to Smith, if the filling isn’t spilling out, there isn’t enough.
At 3:15 a.m., approximately three hours after Smith turned on the mixer, my first bite. The vanilla custard-filled pączki is sweet and substantial and absolutely delicious.
Pączki are technically not a doughnut, though they’re often referred to as a doughnut. Pączki contain less water than donuts giving them more density. The filling is more generous as well.
The next day, at midnight (and earlier as the week continues), Smith will begin the process of making fresh pączki all over again with the same gusto and passion he did the day before and the day before that.
“It’s all just fun and games to me,” said Smith.
Pączki will be available at Party Cake Shop through Fat Tuesday, February 25. Fillings available include: apple black raspberry jelly, apricot, buttercream, chocolate buttercream, lemon, peanut butter buttercream, strawberry buttercream, vanilla custard and prune (by request). Call ahead of time (412.531.5322) to order, especially if you plan on picking up pączki on Fat Tuesday. This ensures you get the fillings you want. Each pączki is $1.35 and $13.99 / dozen.
Party Cake Shop (706 Brookline Blvd.)