She talked in sentences at eleven months and ran before she walked. Born with a beautiful smile, a curly head of hair, and a tender heart, my granddaughter Lauren lights up a room with grace and kindness, can do a mean dance to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”, and climbs a sheer rock wall like a gecko.
Last Saturday I was part of the proud crowd of parents, grandparents, and friends who watched and waited for their special one to walk across the stage and receive their diploma. I’ve been sitting in early summer commencement audiences for ten years now and we’re getting down to the last few graduates.
Unlike previous years, the scholarly types in charge didn’t scold and warn the collective group about preemptive celebration, so the procedure stretched a bit as each robed walker received a well-deserved round of hoots and hollers. Bridg brought out the caramel M&Ms when our peanut gallery got boisterous and somehow our family row stayed awake and alert until it was our girl’s turn.
Sixteen or so years later
Katie, Lauren, Leah
Bridget, Lauren, Katie, Caleb, Ronnie
Lauren received a Batchelor of Arts degree, majoring in Spanish and ESL, and will start working full-time at Thrive, a local non-profit that assists at-risk youth and immigrant families. Her family is so proud of her, enjoys her sweet nature, and is confident that she will turn her world into an even better place.
Although I was only a ten-minute Red Line ride away from the Art Institute, I put off going until our last week in Chicago. Home to a permanent collection of 300,000 works of art and more than thirty special exhibitions, the Art Institute of Chicago is my Swann’s Way, my Finnegan’s Wake, my Infinite Jest—I know it is worth the time and effort, but size and culture fatigue sent me to Jo Nesbo and the Museum of Contemporary Art instead.
The Art Institute of Chicago is huge—topping off at a daunting million square feet, the eight buildings house eleven curated departments, five conservation laboratories, two architectural libraries, sculpture gardens, four restaurants, the Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing, 20,000 photographic works, textiles that span cultures from 300 B.C. to the present, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawk, Pablo Picasso’s Old Guitarist, and Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, to name just a few.
Edward Hopper, Nighthawk
Pablo Picasso, The Old Guitarist
A day trip to the Art Institute of Chicago is like trying to see Europe in two weeks—you’re better off choosing a neighborhood in Paris. My neighborhood of choice was the Modern Wing, so I zipped past the European Decorative Arts, Etruscan artifacts, Japanese screens, and African masks straight to Renzo Piano, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and a few new favorites.
Willem de Kooning, Interchanged
Jim Nutt, Untitled
Man Ray, Departure of Summer
Pablo Picasso, The Red Armchair
Otto Dix, Pregnant Woman
Anyways, my Art Institute of Chicago visit was overwhelming yet exhilarating and given twenty or so more visits, I might just have a sense of the place.
I didn’t have a clothes dryer until my son was born. My daughter, the first born, wore diapers that swished around in a washer on the back porch until I decided they were clean enough, put them through the wringer, and hung them outside on the clothesline. In the winter my fingers were numb by the time the diapers, stacked up like cordwood, were thawing in the basement. Laundry day was indeed a day of doing laundry.
Now don’t be rolling your eyes, this is not a tale of how I survived in the olden days, walking a mile to and from school, and not having my own radio until I was seventeen. No this is a tale of, as Tim Wu in a New York Times article called it, “The Tyranny of Convenience.”
I enjoyed the laundry-day ritual—watching the clothes roil back and forth, squeezing each wet sock through the rubber wringers, and hanging out in the fresh air, but I enthusiastically embraced the convenience of an automatic washing machine. Convenience is changing our world as surely as global warming is. Amazon has taken Walmart’s #1 Villain of the Year spot as it rolls over bookstores, fabric stores, grocery stores, hardware stores, and record stores. Gone are our face-to-face interactions with small store owners and sales clerks, no more browsing the aisles of Ace Hardware looking for that special screw, squeezing peaches to find the ripe one, and choosing just the right pair of socks by feel. Simply touch the “Buy” button, and before you can change your mind, it’s there at your front door.
Social media has eliminated the need for live, personal interactions. How many times have you watched families in a restaurant who ignore each other to connect with their smartphones? Who even uses their phone to talk anymore? And why put your shoes on, start the car, and drive somewhere to see a friend—just FaceTime or Marco Polo them?
What ever happened to just waiting? When we were at the hotel in Chicago, elevator riders couldn’t even resist the scroll while descending to the Sixth Floor. When I looked out the hotel window at pedestrians on the sidewalk below, most of them walked heads down, reading their phones, narrowly avoiding the icicles crashing down around them. Recently at our local Kaiser pharmacy, five out of six waiting members were on their phones. One grandmother-type accompanying a five year old girl brushed off her, “Look Gramma look!”, interruptions to continue playing Candy Crush.
Convenience marginalizes quality. Pouring boiling water over Starbuck’s Via is easier than brewing your coffee, but it is not as good. Using garlic powder instead of peeling and mincing a clove or two is enticingly quicker, but flavorless. Relying on Spotify to create your morning playlist is more convenient than finding a good radio station, becoming a regular listener, choosing your favorites, going to a record store, buying vinyl, returning home, and cranking up the Victrola; but something is lost in the trade.
Using Instagram’s convenient format lessens individual creativity in favor of a pre-packaged communal appearance. It takes more time to find a pencil and paper and think up a birthday card, than it does to choose from a provided template and click “Send.” Digital assistants can shop for us, read to us, lock our doors, heat or cool our houses, and order pizza. Refrigerators make automatic shopping lists, ovens turn themselves on and off without the hassle of getting off the couch, and washers can be turned on remotely with a smart phone. Who knew that Clap On Clap Off lights were cutting edge?
On the whole, convenience has liberated us from drudgery. But what we create through the individual struggle of mastering something difficult—planting a garden, balancing our checkbook, leaning to play the cello, making a quilt—is worth the challenge.
Anyways, I wanted to make good, old Iowa macaroni and pea salad for dinner the other night, but had no peas. I did have a bit of a roasted red pepper, a hard-boiled egg, a half an avocado, an overripe tomato, a few black beans, and a lot of cilantro—so Southwestern Chipotle Salad showed up instead. It’s all in the name.
Southwestern chipotle macaroni salad
Diced celery, radish, or jicama (or all of the above)
Diced fresh serrano, jalapeño, or Mrs. Renfro’s
Diced hard-boiled egg
Cooked corn kernels (TJ’s frozen roasted corn is perfect)
Fine diced red onion
Diced roasted, or not, red pepper
Cooked black beans, rinse canned ones thoroughly or the salad will be grayish (not a good look)
A lot of chopped cilantro
Salt a little as you add ingredients. Add salad dressing, top with crunched up corn tortilla chips—or roasted pumpkin seeds would be good.
1 part mayonnaise
1 part yogurt or sour cream
1 part Bottled Ranch dressing
A squeezed lime or lemon or two
Some red sauce from a can of chipotle peppers (careful, it’s hot)
HBO’s documentary Every Brilliant Thing is a one-man play about a young boy’s attempt to cure his suicidal mother’s depression by creating a list of “everything that was brilliant about the world, everything worth living for.” In the play, the actor gives hand-written notes to members of the audience as they arrive, asking them to read out their assigned brilliant thing when he calls their number. Included in the list: #1, “ice cream,” #5, “things with stripes,” #998,997, “the alphabet,” #4, “laughing so hard you shoot milk out of your nose”—the brilliant things got more sophisticated as the boy grew up.
It is inevitable that a viewer will make up their own list, and high on mine are good sheets—I love good sheets. When I was a kid, I slept on coarse flannel sheets in the winter and muslin sheets in the summer. The good percale ones were used only on the mom and dad bed. I didn’t feel slighted, it was just part of life as a kid before children were the center of the world. But as soon as I became the sheet buyer, I spent as much as I could afford on crisp, cool, all-cotton sheets. If I were rich, every day would be clean sheet day.
My own list of brilliant things so far: the smell of a baby, mayonnaise, i before e except after c, checking off items on a to-do list, a sharp knife, new gum, ceiling fans, lying in bed watching the moon, sleeping in, listening to someone else make dinner, and successful parallel parking.
Last week I put two more brilliant things on my list—a visit from my son and a new set of frosty-grey, sateen sheets from my daughter-in-law. Jon is a smart businessman, a kind, generous son, a stellar husband, the involved father of three special girls, and a new practitioner of 9Round, a high-intensity circuit training fitness program that emphasizes kick-boxing. His wife, Lara, is a dear with a great sense of humor, a big heart, and a Julia Roberts’ face.
Anyways, my son, the Sweetie, and I ate salmon, rice pilaf, and asparagus at the table like grownups, then watched the NYYs, caught up on family news, and after hugs all around, Jon drove back to his hotel room and flew home early the next morning to his four special girls.
Tom Douglas’s salmon rub
3 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons thyme
Black pepper, to taste
Mixed grain/vegetable pilaf
One part cooked rice—Brown, basmati, Korean red
One part cooked grain—quinoa, bulgar wheat, ferro, barley
1/4 part diced onion
Some smashed, minced garlic cloves
Ginger, if you prefer
Maybe some diced celery, if you have some
Or perhaps, diced mushrooms
What about that wilty carrot in the bottom of the crisper?
Diced cabbage or shredded Brussels sprouts work
Diced zucchini or a couple spears of asparagus
*Chop all the vegetables in a smallish dice
Roasted nuts or seeds—walnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts, almonds, sunflower seeds
A splash of lemon juice or chicken stock
Heat some olive oil in a largish sauté pan to a medium heat, add onions, garlic, ginger, celery, mushrooms, carrots, a half shake of red pepper flakes, and a high sprinkle of salt. Continue to sauté over medium until onions are soft.
Turn up the heat a bit. Add cabbage, or Brussels sprouts, or zucchini, or all three, add another small high sprinkle of salt, and cook until vegetables are soft. Add cooked rice and grain, sauté until hot (sometimes I just microwave the rice and grain, then add).
Squirt a bit of lemon juice, chicken stock or both around the edge of the pan. Combine with rubber spatula or spoon and cook until liquid has disappeared.
Fold in roasted nuts or seeds. Serve with another squirt of lemon juice, yogurt, tahini sauce, ranch dressing, or all of the above.
I’m swimming in local waters again—the pool at the Lodge is a few minutes away and if I time my visits, I can avoid the aerobic bouncers who take over the pool five times a week for six hours a day (not complaining, just reporting). In Chicago, I swam in a lap pool that was usually empty—one of the benefits of living in a hotel. Now I queue up and select my swims carefully (again, not complaining, just reporting).
The Lodge pool, Lacey
Our first Chicago hotel didn’t have a pool, so I searched for alternatives. Concierge guy called the East Bank Club, a toney athletic facility a fifteen minute bus ride away, and set me up with an interview. We were clearly not a match—$25.00 for a one-day guest pass, a $500 membership initiation fee, $195 a month for “pool privileges,” plus an out-of-state annoyance fee. But what a beautiful place to swim!
East Bank Athletic Club, Chicago
Second stop—Elkhart Pool in the West Town neighborhood of Chicago, the journey was as good as the destination. I picked up the #65 bus a block from the hotel and took it to the end of the line. I was ready to move in as soon as I stepped off the bus. I walked five blocks to the pool past residential brownstones, independent coffee shops, small ethnic restaurants, neighborhood taverns, a bakery, vintage retail stores, and no big box stores, chain restaurants, or high-rise apartment buildings. Think Ballard, forty years ago. More my speed, no initiation fee, ten swims for $5.00, or $25.00 a month. But once the temperature dipped into the frigids, the bus ride back to the hotel with wet hair stopped me cold.
West Town, Chicago
Eckhart Park pool, Chicago
I hit the jackpot when we moved to our third hotel—a beautiful four-lane lap pool with a view. No bus necessary, I rode the elevator from the eleventh floor to the nineteenth floor and usually swam solo.
Homewood Suites pool, Chicago
I know it’s early—just getting ready. Saw this several places on line, so it must be true.
Strawberry rhubarb upside down cake
1 1/4 cup butter (equals 2.5 sticks of butter)
1lb strawberries (cleaned, stemmed)
1lb rhubarb (sliced into chunky cubes)
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 cups flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 heaped teaspoon kosher salt
1 lemon (zested, and juiced)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 large eggs
1/3 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons cornstarch
Preheat oven to 325 F degrees. Sift flour, baking powder and salt together in bowl, set aside.
On low heat in a cast iron frying pan (10” – 12” works fine), simmer brown sugar and 1/4 cup of butter for 2 minutes while whisking to incorporate; remove from heat.
Cut rhubarb into chunks and clean strawberries, leaving small ones whole and large ones sliced in half. Toss fruit with cornstarch and 1/2 cup of sugar, set aside.
Whip 2 sticks of room temperature butter until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add one cup of sugar and zest of one lemon. Cream until smooth, about 4 minutes.
Add vanilla extract, then add eggs, one at a time, mix well. Add sour cream and lemon juice, mix well. On low speed, add all of flour mixture 1/4 cup at a time.
Add fruit mixture to the warm frying pan, coating fruit with brown sugar and butter mixture. Pour batter on top of it, and smooth it out.
Place frying pan in oven at 325 degrees F. Bake for approximately one hour or until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from oven, cool for at least 15 minutes, and flip over onto large serving plate.
This morning, I hooked my bra in the front (cups to the back), spun it around, and put my arms through the straps. Now that may not mean much to you, but to me it’s another sign that I am an old. When I was in sixth grade, my mom took me to Yonker-Martin’s in downtown Sioux City to buy my first bra. Along with starting my period, I had been both dreading and anticipating this day since fifth grade. A prune-faced sales clerk wearing a brown skirt and sensible shoes ushered me into a dressing room and brought in a stack of “training bras.” She firmly turned me around, slipped my arms through the straps, directed me to lean over and do a “quick jiggle,” then she straightened me up, scooped my “breasts-in-training” into the cups, and hooked the bra into place.
Once we found the perfect one, I was on my own. When I fumbled hooking the bra behind me, the sales clerk showed me the “easy” way: bra back to the front, hook up, turn bra around, slip arms into straps, stuff small breasts into cups and Viola! “But that’s cheating,” she said, “A real woman puts her bra on cups to the front and just knows where the hooks fit in.” Which I did until today when my left hand would not cooperate.
This afternoon, I went to see my doctor about a hand transplant. I have two titanium hips, why not a new hand? I would settle for a new ring finger and a new pointer but I’m holding out for the complete deal. I used to be able to flip a cast iron skillet with my left hand, now the Sweetie has to help. What indignity is next? Well, I’ll tell you.
I asked my doctor if she would schedule another cortisone shot for my knee, which she did. Then she added, “I also have another suggestion that you’re not going to like—a cane or walker would be helpful.”
“But canes are for olds!” I said.
Struggling not to roll her eyes, she looked up at me over her readers, “Use hiking poles if you want to look sporty—but think about it.”
Anyways, Chicago is over, project is done, and we’re back in our almost-moved-in house. I enjoyed the view from the eleventh floor, my hotel friends, swimming on the nineteenth floor, having a Trader Joe’s two blocks away, and not having to drive, but I love more being home with the Sweetie.
Marina City, also know as “the corn cobs”
Here are a few random Chicago-related musings:
For a city the size of Chicago there’s not much local coffee. When I google “coffee,” Starbucks shows up in seven out of ten listings.
Despite the abundance of sunny Winter days, you seldom need or see sunglasses in downtown Chicago.
Children should be banned from hotels, especially on weekends and in the swimming pools.
Never accept a hotel room booking next to the elevator or near the “Storage” room.
Elevator logic suggests that potential riders wait until the elevator empties before entering with their bags, strollers, and breakfast trays.
Beeps from annoyed horn honkers sound like quarrelsome children—“Did not!” “Did too!”
Those big-city movie scenes where someone walks partway into a busy downtown street, waves their up-stretched arm, and hails a cab in a few minutes are true. No kidding, there is always one right around the corner or down the street.
Pedestrians should wait up on the sidewalk for the light to change. All street lanes are active and you will be squashed like a bug if you’re in their way.
I’ve thought about it and I’m not using a cane or sporty sticks.
In the late 1980s, the Sweetie and I watched the television series, Beauty and the Beast—a fantasy/romance/crime drama about the relationship between noble Vincent, the man/beast who looked like a lion, and beautiful Catherine, the smart, successful Manhattan lawyer. Vincent lived in “the World Below”, with like-minded misfits who had been shunned by society, and Catherine moved freely between the World Below and the World Above. The secret, subterranean community, hidden in caves and tunnels miles below Fifth Avenue, was furnished with books, artwork, and faded elegance taken from the World Above. The imagery of the World Below was as romantic and appealing to me as were the story’s plot and characters.
So, when a breakfast-room acquaintance told me about Chicago’s “Pedway”, a complex, forty block underground passageway linking more than 50 buildings in the Loop to the CTA’s Red and Blue lines, I planned my trip that day. Construction to provide weatherproof passage between the buildings began in the 1950s and has continued haphazardly ever since. Each section is independently owned and maintained by the building above and has different lights, different wall and floor composition, different decoration or lack thereof, and even different air temperatures.
The route is illogical, with hidden entrances leading to dead end exits and dark, mysterious hallways. Signage is sketchy and obscure, so there are urban legends of lost souls still wandering the Pedway looking for a way out. There’s an entire world under those fifty buildings: the beautiful, ornate, old Marshall Field’s (now a Macy’s), an LA Fitness swimming pool, restaurants, bars, barber shops, and a Walgreens. Old-school Chicagoans pride themselves on being able to use the Pedway and are usually willing to help, while some long-time residents don’t even know that the Pedway’s exists.
My subterranean tour was brief but spectacular—I was there to see the 22 American Victorian, non-religious stained glass window installation displayed next to the Wabash Street Macy’s entrance. The windows are backlit, adding a strange glow to the dimly lit corridor.
Spiderweb, attributed to Louis Tiffany
Twins supporting a knight’s plumed helmet, 1890s
A Chicagoan led the way to the World Above, and I took the Red Line back to the hotel. Vincent and Catherine would love Chicago’s Pedway.
In November 1998, after twenty hours in the air and a two-hour layover in London, we walked out of the Mumbai airport into a hot, sultry night and were immediately surrounded by a push of taxi drivers vying for our business. Nothing was familiar: weather, alphabet, language, sounds—all completely new. This out-of-body experience intensified on the white-knuckle, three-hour drive to Ahmednagar as we hurtled down the two-lane road, narrowly avoiding certain collisions with Tata trucks, rickshaws, scooters, and cows. I was completely out of my element, but exhilarated and strangely at home. The sights, smells, colors, music, and food of India I so enjoyed during our stay have become consistent favorites.
Last week when I saw a billboard on the bus advertising “Holi Festival Celebration at the Navy Pier”, the event went straight to my calendar. I picked up the NB #65 at the usual stop, but the crowd waiting to board was not usual. There was no need to worry about stumbling, as we were packed into the bus vertically (and intimately) like books on a shelf.
Holi, known as the festival of lights, is an ancient Hindu festival that celebrates the victory of good over evil, the end of Winter, and the arrival of Spring. Holi has become best known for its color-throwing free-for-all, where no one is exempt from being smeared, covered, and sprinkled with colored powder and doused with water-filled balloons and water guns.
The color throwing and water drenching took place in a cordoned off outdoor area surrounded by blue plastic tarps and carefully protected sidewalks. Inside the Aon Ballroom, a standing-room-only audience watched dancers, musicians, and storytellers backed by the Surabhi Ensemble. Exotically dressed performance artists wandered around the perimeter dispensing iridescent bubbles, candy pops, and colorful yarn bracelets.
I‘m surprised how busy downtown Chicago is on the weekend. The hotel fills up with theater, museum, and concert goers, couples looking for no-drive, no-DUI party time, singles doing whatever it is singles do, and young families swimming in my pool. Restaurants are packed with brunch, happy hour and dinner customers and clubs stay open until early morning. Maybe all big cities sparkle on the weekend, I wouldn’t know, I stay home. Anyways, it’s all fun to see, but I’ll choose a snuggle, a baseball game, and the Sweetie.
Thanks to my dear friend Patty for the use of her beautiful photos of India.
Cauliflower or Potato Pea Curry
1 T. ghee
1 T. coconut oil
1 T. mustard seeds
1 diced onion
1 T. fresh garlic
1 T. grated ginger
1 t. cumin
1⁄2 t. turmeric
1 t. cardamom
1 fine-dice Serrano
1 can diced in juice tomatoes
1⁄2 c. tomato sauce
2 t. sugar
1 head cauliflower or 4-6 waxy-type potatoes
1 c. frozen peas (defrosted and cooked 2-3 minutes)
Sauté mustard seeds in hot oil—add onions, garlic, ginger and spices.
Add serranos, tomatoes, tomato sauce and sugar. Simmer 10-15 minutes to thicken.
Add 1 head cauliflower divided into small florets or peeled and diced potatoes. Simmer the raw cauliflower or potatoes in the sauce; it will absorb the rich spiciness.
Simmer until cauliflower or potato is tender. Add peas, heat through. Serve with a squeeze of fresh lime.
I wish I could say that I read Shakespeare when I don’t have to—I would seem so much deeper. Maybe it’s the language that looks artificial to my shallow, modern eye or maybe it’s the discipline of reading rhyme, but I never pull out my old “Chaucer to Shakespeare” textbook when I want to curl up with a good book.
Watching a play in person is another story—after a few minutes, the awkwardness of hearing 16th Century English fades away and the drama, or comedy, takes hold. I wanted to visit Chicago’s Navy Pier anyway, so when I saw that there was a Saturday matinee of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” I bought an on-line ticket and took the #65 bus to the pier.
It was a bright, sunny day, the Pier was crowded with the young and hip, Mom, Dad, and the kids, olds like me, and packs of roaming teens followed by an occasional adult. Prominent signs declaring that “No one under 18 allowed on the Navy Pier after 5:00 pm without an escort” assured even the most timid that tomfoolery and shenanigans were unlikely.
I found my seat in the intimate theater and settled in as the lights flickered to quiet the audience. An actor dressed as his character bounded onto the stage, welcomed us, and encouraged everyone to relax, not to worry about the plot, and to just enjoy the experience. The actors, who were skilled professionals, changed characters and costumes offstage frequently and presented the play confidently, without hesitation.
After the last bow was taken, the entire cast sat down on the stage floor and opened the floor to remarks from the audience. There were grade school, middle school, and high school English classes in attendance and many eager hands shot up, waving to be the one chosen to ask a question. Anyways, I enjoyed it all and vowed to see another play soon.
Navy Pier yacht, Odyssey, available to book for cruises on Lake Michigan.
The set for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Polk Brothers Park sculpture, “Prismaticia—an installation comprised of pivoting prisms more than two metres high transforming the space into a giant kaleidoscope.”
Italian Wedding Soup
1/2 lb. ground beef
1/2 lb. ground pork
1 egg, slightly beaten
2 tablespoons breadcrumbs
1/4 cup milk
1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese
1⁄2 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1/4 tsp. dried oregano
1/4 tsp. dried rosemary
Or 3/4 tsp. Italian herb combination
Salt to taste
1 cup diced onion
1/2 lb. diced mushrooms
1 Tblsp. minced garlic
1/2 tsp. dried red chilies
1/4 tsp. salt
1 peeled, diced carrots
1/2 cup uncooked orzo
1 quart chicken stock
2 cups chopped spinach
grated Parmesan cheese for garnish
Meatballs: In medium bowl combine, meat, egg, bread crumbs, milk, parmesan cheese, seasonings, salt, and pepper; shape into small meatballs.
In large sauce pan, sauté diced onion, mushrooms, garlic, and chilies for 3-5 minutes until onions are soft. Season with salt.
Add carrots, meatballs, and orzo and sauté 3-5 minutes.
Add chicken stock, bring to simmer and cook until carrots are soft, 10-15 minutes.
Add chopped spinach.
Serve with additional Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top.
If you were with me in Houston, you may remember kolaches, those fruit and cream filled Czech pastries so popular in East Texas—here in Chicago, it’s paczki. Last Tuesday was Paczki Day—picture, if you will, a plump donut made with an eggy, yeasty dough, deep fried until golden brown, poked and filled to the bursting with preserves or pastry cream, then sugar-glazed, and finally iced with frosting, sprinkled with powdered sugar, or both. Available only on Fat Tuesday, a paczki may be the best possible pre-Lenten indulgence.
I listened to a local radio piece about them Tuesday morning and thus began my paczki adventure. Before we set out, a word about the word itself. How would you pronounce paczki—packs ski, pak zi, pakz kee? Oh no, it’s pōhnsch key—with an long o, an n, and a sch. I guess that pronunciation shouldn’t come as a surprise. Mike Shih shef ski, Duke University’s Polish basketball coach, spells his name, Krzyzewski—now where does the K, the R, the Z, and the EW fit in?
Anyways, both the Chicago Tribune and WBEZ, my radio companion, warned that today was the only day in the year that paczki would be available, that I’d better have my pre-order in, and that lines were already forming, so I skipped my swim for the better good. I Googled “Chicago’s best paczki,” but Dinkle’s and Bridgeport Bakery both required a 45-minute Red Line ride, so I kept scrolling and found Do-Rite Do-nuts, a ten minute walk from the hotel. The media was right—lines were formed, I hadn’t placed an order, and they were already out of strawberry buttercream, Fat Elvis, and lemon curd. I gratefully settled on four Glazed Chocolate Nutella paczki, four Frosted Raspberry Cream paczki, and threw in a couple Buttermilk Old Fashioneds.
Paczkis are traditionally shared, so I stopped at our hotel’s valet kiosk where Dimitri and Hector rock/paper/scissored to choose a Nutella. Next stop, the front desk where one raspberry and one Nutella vanished. A guest from Pittsburg checking in didn’t hesitate to pick his favorite, a raspberry. Lupe the housekeeper also wanted a raspberry, leaving me a Nutella to immediately consume with a glass of milk (the recommended beverage), plus two for later.
Sorry Houston, so much for kolaches. And you Portland, meet the paczki—even better than a Voodoo Doughnut.
2 cups whole milk
4 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast (2 standard sized envelopes)
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
5 cups (22.5 ounces) all purpose flour
4 eggs yolks plus one whole egg
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
2 quarts canola oil for frying
1 1/2 cups of your favorite preserves
1 cup powdered sugar for dusting
In a small saucepan heat milk to between 110 an 115°F. Pour warmed milk into a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer. Dissolve yeast in milk. Add one Tablespoon sugar and two cups of flour. Mix until consistency of pancake batter then cover with plastic wrap and place in a warm spot to allow yeast to activate. Let rest for 30 minutes or until starter is very bubbly.
In a medium bowl combine egg and yolks. Whisk until light and frothy, about 4 minutes. Whisk in 1/2 cup sugar, salt and vanilla.
Slowly stir cooled melted butter into yeast starter until combined. Then slowly incorporate egg mixture until just combined. Fit mixer with dough hook. Stir in flour, working 1/2 a cup in at a time until a soft dough comes together. Note: this dough is very sticky.
Spray a large bowl with cooking spray and transfer dough to bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and set in a warm place to rise until double in size. About an hour.
Turn out dough on a very generously floured surface. Dust surface of dough with flour then punch down dough to about half an inch high. Using a floured two- or three-inch biscuit cutter, cut out doughnuts. Carefully transfer doughnut rounds to parchment lined baking sheets. Cover sheets with a clean dish towel and set in a warm place to rise until doubled in size, about 30 minutes.
Pour canola oil into a large dutch oven to a depth of 2 inches. Heat oil to 360°F. Once oil reaches the proper temperature use a heat resistant spatula or shallow strainer to carefully drop doughnuts in, one at a time, cooking a maximum of 3 at once. Cook doughnuts until a warm, deep brown on one side, then using heat resistance tongs turn the doughnut and cook the other side until it reaches the same degree of doneness. Remove from oil letting any excess oil drain off then transfer to a wire rack for cooling. Test your first doughnut to make sure that the insides are completely cooked, if not adjust your cooking time accordingly. Let doughnut cool.
Prepare a wide and shallow bowl with powdered sugar. Fill your pastry bag with your favorite preserves and fit the bag with a filling tip. Pipe filling into pączki then dip each side in powdered sugar until covered