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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicagoans this month are less obsessed with badmouthing Mayor Rahm Emanuel or worries about their sports teams, and more focused on finding the perfect “paczki,” a rich, Polish, donut-type dessert that's taking the high-end dessert market by storm.
Long a staple treat preceding the Catholic fasting period of Lent, the pastries, a no-hole, denser and richer version of the donut, have exploded in popularity in recent years far beyond Chicago's large Polish community to a growing number of high-end, specialty donut shops, bakers and food experts say.
These gourmet bakeries, with names like "Glazed and Infused," are experimenting with new paczki varieties - using key lime pie, jelly made with blood oranges, or white chocolate in place of more traditional plum and rose jelly fillings.
"It's really big this year," said Rebecca Skoch, a food and beverage consultant who organizes the annual "Donut Fest." "Chicago has a great mix of bakers that do classic donuts and newer, avant garde places that aren't afraid to experiment."
Skoch said Chicago is a leader in the gourmet donut trend nationwide, ahead of New York and Portland, so it makes sense that new shops want to take on a local favorite.
Paczki (pronounced "ponchkey" for several and "ponchek" for one), also popular in other Midwest cities like Detroit and Cleveland, differ from North American bismarcks in having an especially rich dough, with eggs, butter, alcohol and sometimes milk.
The dense deep-fried pastries, which do not flatten as they are eaten, date back to the Middle Ages, when people tried to use up ingredients that are avoided during Lent.
With Lent starting on Wednesday, Feb. 10, this year, pastry shops are expecting big business leading up to it.
"People cut back on Wednesday, so Tuesday's a fun day," said Mark Tormey, co-owner of Do-Rite Donuts, which is offering Nutella-filled and key lime pie paczki with a sugary graham cracker topping.
Firecakes Donuts, in the wealthy Lincoln Park and River North neighborhoods, expanded its paczki line this February with chocolate custard and Meyer lemon, along with raspberry and blood orange jelly.
"We try to keep the integrity but make it memorable, interesting," said Firecakes owner Jonathan Fox.
Though the newer specialty donut shops have been expanding their production and varieties, the big Chicago paczki sellers continue to be European-style bakeries, like Delightful Pastries, which has made them year-round for 18 years.
Delightful's owner Dobra Bielinski expects to sell 50,000 for the season, and demand has soared with greater awareness of "Paczki Day" celebrated on the Thursday or Tuesday before Lent.
Delightful's varieties include "drunken paczki," like vodka with custard and whiskey with chocolate cream.
In a back room at Delightful's northwest side shop last Wednesday, six workers were busy mixing, kneading and rolling the creamy dough into balls.
"It's nothing but paczki back there," said counter worker Maggie Giza. "It's insane."
Editing by Ben Klayman and Bernadette Baum