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It’s Paczki Time!

Sweet Polish Pastries Have Become Ohio Valley Seasonal Favorite

Photos Provided This rack of paczki are fried and waiting to be filled and iced.

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — That box of paczki you sneaked into this Lenten season might conjure up visions of a sweet Polish babcia baking up some love for her family. But, more likely, there was an Italian baker from the Bronx behind it.

It’s true. Peter Barbaro is Riesbeck’s bakery program director. As such, he’s been responsible for the last 2 million of the 8 million or so paczki that have hit the streets of the Ohio Valley in the last 25 years.

“I learned from people from all over the world,” Barbaro said of growing up in the densely, diversely populated borough of New York City. French pastries, Kosher cooking, gluten free. It was all there.

Except for paczkis, ironically. Until relocating to St. Clairsville seven years ago to head up Riesbeck’s bakery division, he’d had little experience with the classic Polish pastry.

He’s more than made up for it since. Paczki mania has only increased under his tenure, he said. In fact, the company that supplies his paczki boxes recently told him Riesbeck’s is now the second largest commercial source of the delicacy in the nation.

“This is a Polish pastry and it’s now broader,” he explained. “Everyone eats it. It doesn’t matter what nationality you are. It’s a pastry that’s pretty well known.”

Slow food

What’s the allure? Barbaro said it’s the whole “gourmet donut” thing.

Paczki are a deceptively simple bundle of culinary joy. “We make them from scratch every day,” Barbaro said. To meet one day’s quota for Riesbeck’s, it takes three or four bakers working four hours.

There’s the nightly weighing of ingredients to meet a precise output suggested by past years’ sales. There’s the mixing and the machine-driven balling of dough. The long proofing (rising) time that the donuts require given their rich, heavy pastry.

There’s the tightly controlled frying temperature. If the oil is hotter than 350 degrees, the outsides are too cooked and the insides are not cooked enough. If it’s lower, the paczkis absorb too much oil. Ditto the persnicketiness for icing temps. If it’s not between 98 and 100 degrees, icing either clumps from cold or slides off because of heat.

There’s the nearly endless variety of fillings. Barbaro said there are technically 23 fillings in the Riesbeck’s recipe repertoire, but they generally make 15 varieties. The most popular are red raspberry, Bavarian cream (a custard), crème (more like a whipped cream), cheese and peanut butter.

Other fillings at the ready in bakery-sized hoppers include apple, pumpkin, chocolate, prune, lemon, poppyseed butter, apricot, blueberry and plain. Barbaro said people often buy the latter to make breakfast sandwiches. There are also box labels set aside for a mysterious “other.” Customers sometimes order such speciality fillings as maple or honey syrups.

The variety continues on the paczki’s exterior. Coatings include sugar, powdered sugar, chocolate, white icing, cinnamon and sugar, maple glaze and others. Barbaro said what’s on top depends on what’s inside.

Just don’t expect things to get skimpy, he noted. “We don’t make sugar free.”

Long local history

Benwood resident Maria Herbut, a native of Poland, shared another spin on local paczki lore. While she has lived in the U.S. for 45 years, she learned to make the pastry from her mother.

In Poland, paczki were made between New Year’s Day and the beginning of Lent, Herbut said. The idea was to use up rich ingredients in the house before the season of austerity.

“They’re pretty rich – a lot of yolks, flour, butter and they are usually stuffed with preserves.” When growing up, Herbut said it was homemade preserves made out of such varied stuff as prunes and rose hips “Nowadays, they’ve got all kinds of fillings.”

Another difference between the European and American versions is a matter of ingredients and technique, she said. Ingredient wise, Herbut said the Polish pastries tend to have an even heavier dough and more filling.

Technique wise, the Polish version is rolled and cut into circles rather than being formed into balls as happens at Riesbeck’s, she said. The circles are filled and stuck together with a film of water. Because of this difference, the Polish version must be fried after filling, whereas the American paczki are balled, fried and then filled, Herbut said.

Not that she’s complaining about the local product, mind you.

Even though she still makes her own paczki preceding Lent, Herbut admitted with a chuckle that she also enjoys the Riesbeck’s version — particularly the raspberry- and Bavarian cream-filled ones. “It’s easier to buy a package than to make them. And, if I make them I make a lot, too much.

“(At Riesbeck’s,) you can pick up four or six, and you don’t have to feel so guilty.”

Tasty business

Barbaro knows whereof she speaks. While customers are focused on the pleasure of paczki, he’s also thinking demand vs. “shrink” and serving size.

On the demand continuum, he said paczki sell so well – pre Lent and during Lent — there are generally few to none left at the end of the day. That makes the pastry the company’s best-selling baked good.

And, demand seems to be on the rise over time. Before he came on board seven years ago, he said Riesbeck’s baked the time-consuming pastries only on weekends between early January and Easter weekend. Now, it’s a daily bake.

In 2020, the paczkis sold for 101 days. They reappeared Jan. 4 this year and Barbaro said there didn’t seem to be any sign of New Year’s resolutions. “We sold a ton of paczkis. No one on diets.

“Usually, the first two weeks and the last two weeks are the best,” he said of the selling season. “And, if the weather’s colder, we usually sell more.”

So far, 2021 is shaping up to be a record season, he noted, wondering is COVID is making area residents crave comfort food. Sales are up 13 percent over 2020, he said. On a day-to-day comparison, the uptick is as much as 22 percent.

“Sometimes we’ll do a promotional. You put a special price on them and you’ll have lines,” he added with a chuckle.

Part of the allure may be Barbaro’s decision to move to more 2-paczki boxes. In the distant past, when families were larger, he said eight-packs were the rule. Six-packs were a transition size. The store now sells the pastry by both sixes and twos to accommodate a range of household sizes.

He said people also like the smaller servings because they make it easier to mix and match fillings – but he suspects portion control may be the biggest driver. Paczkis are rich stuff.

“Years ago, we had some eating contests and I think the record was 16 or 18,” said Barbaro, barely respressing a verbal shudder. “I’m a big guy, and I can eat only two of them.”

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