Pączki are an extremely rich jelly donut first made in Poland, and now enjoyed in many Eastern European countries, Israel, and in communities in the US with strong eastern European — particularly Polish — roots. They had a very special place in Polish culture, and were likely first made during the Middle Ages. Like most filled donuts (doughnuts) pączki are deep fried, and fillings, especially in the US, may resemble other jelly donuts here, and make use of lemon, pastry cream, or various jams. The earliest pączki probably had very different fillings, and might have had a strong rose flavor. You can still find this type in Poland.
Dough to make these donuts is much richer than American versions of the jelly donut. It usually has lard and eggs in good quantity. The reason for this extra rich dough was very simple. Just before Lent, houses had to be cleared of various products, particularly any meat or meat derived products like lard or eggs. Strict interpretation of the Lenten diet meant forgoing anything related to meat, and even fruit. It’s the French tradition to have a last “feast” on Fat Tuesday. In Poland, Fat Thursday, occurring the week before Ash Wednesday, was when feasting occurred.
Thus you’ll see lots of pączki in the week before Lent, but they’ve become popular treats year round. They also became quite popular among Polish and Eastern European Jews, and the tradition of serving jelly donuts during Hannukah was arguably inspired by pączki. In the US, especially in a few areas where former Polish immigrants celebrate their heritage, it’s not uncommon to see pączki celebrations. In Hamtramck, Detroit, residents celebrate an annual Pączki Day on Fat Tuesday. The day includes a parade, and even a running and eating of the donuts contest that residents of the community truly enjoy. You might note some fillings that are very different than what you’d expect in a jelly donuts; prunes, for example are quite popular.
You’ll also find pączki in Brazil, where the donuts are called sonho which means dream. In countries surrounding Poland, there may be slight but more recognizable versions of the name for this dessert. These include names like pyshki, ponchiki, and pampushky. Austrians are more likely to call these donuts krapfen. By any name, this dessert which was once exclusive to Poland, is now popular in many parts of the world.