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Monday, January 21, 2008

Loss and Translation

Yesterday, my friend Marta came over to make paczki, a Polish donut that is traditionally prepared before the Lenten season. My husband, Jeff, is Polish-American and his family also makes them, though they usually have their paczki closer to Easter.

Like many treasured family recipes, Jeff’s family really didn’t have an exact recipe for paczki – his grandmother (Babci, in Polish) just knew when the stop adding the flour, when to stop kneading, when the dough was ready. Fortunately Jeff’s parents had the foresight to sit down with Babci and figure out just how much flour was being added and to describe, in some detail, how the dough looked when it was ready. Thus the treasured family recipe was preserved.

…until they started tinkering with it. Can you use more whole eggs, fewer yolks? Can you cut back on the butter? Some cooks just can’t resist altering a recipe (myself included). In this case, the paczki recipe got somewhat leaner for a while, then slid back toward its original all-egg-yolk glory (what’s the point of trying to make low-fat dough that’s going to be deep-fried, after all). I doubt that the paczki being made this year are strictly according to Babci’s original recipe. I also doubt that, in the end, it truly matters. So many things affect our perceptions of taste; would any paczki, other than those made by Babci herself and eaten when we were children, ever taste just like Babci’s?

The paczki themselves seem to differ from one family to the next. Most paczki lovers, it seems, dream of jelly donuts as the season approaches. Jeff’s family adds raisins to the dough, shapes it into balls for frying and skips the jelly. One family I know fries balls of dough, then splits them in half and fills them with both jelly and whipped cream. (Talk about decadent…).

The paczki we made yesterday were filled with plum butter. Marta brought her cookbook from home and translated the recipe as we worked, so I’m thinking that those paczki must be pretty darn authentic. Unless we missed something in the translation. I must admit, I preferred them to the raisin-studded version of Jeff’s childhood, and I’ll probably switch over to the new recipe from here on. It might turn out for the best – just having paczki in the house should be enough to bring back memories of childhood treats, but since the recipe is so different, Jeff won't be sad that they aren't just like Babci's.

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