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Traditional pastry marks beginning of Lent

Eric Dahl of Gary walked into Beck’s Crown Bakery of Crown Point Tuesday morning asking if they bakery “had those paczki things.”

The Gary resident works at the Southlake YMCA and saw a commercial for paczki. It’s a treat he recalled he would enjoy when he worked in Calumet City. Since he retired a few years ago, he hadn’t given the treats much thought — until that commercial.

“I asked a couple ladies at the Y if there was a bakery that made them, and they sent me here,” he said. He walked out with a bag containing a strawberry, a custard and an apple paczki.

Dahl was among a steady flow of customers who walked into Beck’s Tuesday to pick up their paczki order or to grab a fresh dozen. The bakery was prepared for either. Advanced orders were packed and ready to go. Workers continued non-stop making, frying, filling and dusting the paczki for those stopping by.

Craig Streicher, who owns the bakery with his wife Nadine, estimates they will make about 1,000 dozen paczki throughout the season that started with weekends in January. About 700 dozen of those will be made this week alone, the only week the treats are available Monday through Saturday. Next week, people can still get the Fat Tuesday treat on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

“It’s getting more and more popular,” Craig Streicher said of the Polish Lenten tradition originally intended to be a final treat before the fasting of Lent.

He was first exposed to paczki as a sales representative in Illinois for a company that provided ingredients to businesses. It was a strong tradition in the Polish communities on the South Side of Chicago and when people started moving to Indiana the paczki tradition followed.

“Now it’s more word of mouth. There’s more visibility. Everybody advertises now. All the supermarkets are doing it,” he said. His first year at the bakery’s helm, he said they made about 36 dozen paczki, a figure that grows each year.

The paczki at Beck’s are made from scratch from the recipe used by Nadine’s father, who first opened Beck’s in 1969 when he moved the family business from Harvey, Illinois. The business remains a family affair. Their daughter Heather works at the business, and their grandchildren were doing homework in a breakroom, while waiting to head off to school.

The regular paczki now have 9 different fruit fillings and are covered with powdered sugar. Two of the flavors also are available in a plain sugar paczki. Deluxe paczki include Bavarian crème and fruited pie filling.

Craig Streicher said the most popular flavor is Bavarian crème, while Heather Streicher contends the most popular flavor is cheese. The rest, they say, are about equal in popularity.

The least popular flavor is prune, though it is making a resurgence, Craig Streicher said. In the old neighborhoods, the treats were just filled with apricot and prune.

About 14 workers will cycle through the small bakery Tuesday, working to keep the paczki flowing. In the production area, Jeff Vargo was busy rolling out the dough and using a specialized cutter to roll off rows of the fluffy dough to be prepped for frying.

He chuckled when asked if he enjoys working this time of year and pointed at his stomach when asked if after making so many paczki he still enjoyed eating them.

“Can’t you tell,” Vargo said.

Overtime is a must during paczki season, Streicher said. He called Vargo and Mike Jiminez, who fries the paczki, as the main men responsible for getting the treats right. They get into the bakery around 3 a.m. to start the day.

“I can’t work them to death, but I can come close,” he said. Paczki season has become so busy it now surpasses both Christmas and Thanksgiving in sales.

For those bakers who partake in the paczki tradition, this week marks a triple threat. Paczki Day and Mardi Gras, with its famous king cakes, align with Valentine’s Day this year.

“I think it happens once every five years,” Nadine Streicher said.

Along with the paczki, the Streichers expect to help Mardi Gras revelers celebrate. The bakery will make between 50 and 80 king cakes this week. As tradition holds, the individual who gets the slice of cake with the toy baby in it hosts the next Mardi Gras party.

Nadine Streicher said the ethnic baked goods are so popular, the bakery has begun offering Rosca de Reyes, or “King Cake,” a traditional Mexican cake eaten on or around Jan. 6 to mark the epiphany.

Lisa Ramos of Merrillville stopped in to get some paczki for her family. She started coming to Beck’s three years ago when she found out about paczki from her coworkers and now she is hooked on the seasonal treats.

“I just kind of come every year for the apricot and the chocolate,” Ramos said.

cnapoleon@chicagotribune.com