February 16, 2023
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Chicago both has a large Polish population and is a city full of people who love food, so it’s no surprise that the day before Ash Wednesday has become known to many Chicagoans in the past few years as Pączki Day. The filled, yeasted doughnut is traditionally eaten on Fat Thursday (the Thursday before Ash Wednesday) in Poland, but Chicagoans have turned them into their own sort of cold-weather Mardi Gras treat.
But there are plenty of other decadent desserts to eat to celebrate the day variously known as Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, Pancake Day, or Fastnacht, among other names. The holiday is the last day before Lent, a solemn period of 40 days of fasting for Christians that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter.
Fat Tuesday is an apt name: as people prepared to enter a prolonged period of fasting, they historically needed to use up all the ingredients that would be forbidden during Lent, such as butter, lard, eggs, and sugar. “Carnival,” as the festive Mardi Gras period before Lent is known, comes from the Italian for “remove meat,” although the prohibitions extended beyond just meat. Hence the numerous rich delectables such as pączki that are eaten on Fat Tuesday.
Besides the abundance of pączki, some of those other indulgent foods are available in Chicago. Here are a few other snacks to enjoy on Fat Tuesday, whether you’re a Christian who is in for a stretch of fasting or simply a Chicagoan who needs some indulgence as gray winter drags on, no matter how mild.
Be sure to check any outlet’s website for ordering guidelines and special hours, as many require pre-orders.
King cake is probably the most well-known pre-Lenten treat, served in New Orleans during the Mardi Gras season leading up to Ash Wednesday. It usually consists of some sort of yeasted dough or brioche that is filled with cinnamon, cream cheese, or nuts and topped with icing or sugar in the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold. A small toy baby is customarily baked into the cake (or provided separately, to avoid a chipped tooth); whoever gets the slice with the baby is queen or king of the party, and is responsible for buying next year’s king cake.
Here are some places around Chicago offering king cakes, including some with a twist. Many bakeries that sell king cakes also have pączki, so you could pick up both! And some of the restaurants that have king cakes also serve beignets, another fried dough treat that is associated with Fat Tuesday (more on that below).
This long-standing Evanston bakery offers both king cakes and pączki, each in multiple flavors, and even has a pączki-eating contest on February 18.
Andersonville’s heritage Southern restaurant has a full festive Mardi Gras menu available, and offers a king cake crossed with a hummingbird cake: the filling is banana caramel pudding with roasted pineapple and pecans.
You can get a brioche king cake filled with cinnamon sugar pecans from this Lakeview shop. They also have baked brioche pączki availalbe, in two flavors.
Chris Reed’s father was born in Louisiana, so he goes all out for Fat Tuesday, New Orleans style, at Sketchbook Brewing Company’s Skokie location for a special event on February 21. The Indonesian-Cajun food truck’s menu will include a novel version of king cake, in the form of bread pudding.
The two outposts of this bakery, in Revival Food Hall From Here On Food Hall in the Old Post Office, have it all for Fat Tuesday: king cake with raspberry jam, sweet cheese, and lemon sumac icing; six inventive varieties of pączki; and the French version of a king cake, galette de rois, featuring pistachio frangipane, dark chocolate, and more in puff pastry.
Lincoln Park’s bakery and cafe has king cake buns available that bring the dessert closer to a cinnamon roll or pastry.
You can get king cake as well as baked, instead of fried, pączki from this popular Evanston bakery known for its breads made from unusual grains.
This Elk Grove Village bakery has both various flavors of king cake and types of pączki.
Junebug Cafe is a Louisiana-style restaurant, so of course it offers king cake—as well as beignets—at both its Portage Park and West Town locations.
The One Off Hospitality bakery has king cakes available for pick-up from its new, standalone West Town location.
This coffee shop in Ravenswood is owned by two Louisiana natives, so it’s not a surprise that they have king cake in the form of sticky buns as well as pączki.
The West Loop food hall will host a one-day pop-up called French Quarter Kitchen put together by chefs D’Andre Carter of Soul and Smoke and Darnell Reed of Luella’s Southern Kitchen, both of which have stands in the market. The main location of Luella’s also offers beignets.
While this New Orleans-influenced spot doesn’t have any true king cake, it gets an honorable mention for a king cake shot. Go try it if you’re brave.
Swedes celebrate Fat Tuesday with a dessert not dissimilar to pączki. Semla or semlor are also filled, bready treats, but the dough is cardamom-scented and baked instead of fried, and the filling is traditionally almond cream. (Cardamom is popular in Swedish baking: try a recipe for kanelbullar, or Swedish cinnamon buns, from America’s Test Kitchen.)
Four flavors of semla are available at Lost Larson’s original Andersonville location: traditional almond; chocolate hazelnut; raspberry; and pistachio-orange. Pre-orders are available through February 18, with limited single pieces available for walk-up on February 21.
This Swedish restaurant in North Park offers limited quantities of traditional semlor. It’s best to call ahead to check availability and try to go in the morning before they sell out.
Pancakes and Blini
In the United Kingdom, Fat Tuesday is also known as Pancake Day. There are even “pancake races.” While we don’t know of anywhere in Chicago that hosts any specials (or races) for Pancake Day (email us at [email protected] if you do!), there are obviously plenty of places to enjoy a warm stack.
Related is the Slavic tradition of eating blini on Fat Tuesday, which is called Maslenitsa. You could head to Russian Tea Time in the Loop if you’d like to celebrate Slavic-style.
One of the best ways to use up lots of butter and fat is to fry up some dough, so doughnuts are common across Christian cultures on Fat Tuesday: pączki, beignets, Pennsylvania Dutch fastnacht, castagnole. We noted a few places that serve beignets in the king cake section if you want to double-dip, but we’re sure you have your own favorite doughnut place. Use the excuse to treat yourself.