PROFESSIONAL BAKERS wake up early, but for two weeks this month, Bakery Nouveau owner William Leaman’s workday will start shortly after midnight. Beginning Feb. 11, he’ll arrive at his West Seattle cafe around 1:30 a.m. (luckily, it’s just three minutes from home) to make paczki, the filled doughnuts that are a pre-Lenten Polish tradition.
He’ll spend the wee hours dividing, shaping and proofing the dough. Then he starts frying. Precise timing from proof box to fryer is key to achieving the pastry’s characteristic white stripe around the middle. An assistant arrives around 5 a.m. to make the fillings. They include chocolate, lemon or raspberry cremeux, or diplomat cream (a blend of pastry cream and whipped cream), or whatever they have on hand and need to use up.
By the time the West Seattle store opens at 6 a.m., fresh doughnuts will be in the case and on their way to Bakery Nouveau’s two other locations, in Capitol Hill and Burien. Get them while they last — this year, that’s through Feb. 25, aka Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras. But you, too, will have to get up early. They sell out quickly each day.
The custom of eating fried dough and other sweet treats in the weeks leading up to Lent is common in Christian cultures in many countries. It grew from a desire to deplete lard, sugar and other ingredients prohibited by strict Lenten fasting rules.
In addition to paczki, Bakery Nouveau makes king cakes, the gaudy pastry perhaps most famous as the edible symbol of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The earliest of American cakes, king cake dates to the early 1700s. Basque settlers baked a cinnamon-swirled brioche-style cake to celebrate the Epiphany, the Feast of the Three Kings, on Jan. 6, which is also the beginning of Carnival season in many countries. Through January each year, Bakery Nouveau also makes galette des rois, a French version of king cake made with frangipane-filled puff pastry. The custom across cultures survives of hiding inside these king cakes a bean or small bauble (la fève) representing baby Jesus.
Leaman’s king cake, he says, has “aspirations.” He adds apples and raisins to the cinnamon-sugar filling to give it a regional identity. After all, he notes, “This is the apple state.” They roast the apples separately; spread the filling on brioche dough laminated with butter, like croissants; and cut it into strips for braiding. In flamboyant New Orleans style, sugar tinted purple, green and gold, and strings of matching beads festoon the finished cake, which is sold by the slice or whole. Whole king cakes come with a tiny plastic doll alongside for the buyer to tuck inside.
Leaman is neither Polish nor from the Big Easy. Selling king cakes was an idea born of necessity. He opened Bakery Nouveau in December 2006, a year after he captained the Bread Bakers Guild Team USA to victory at the Coupe du Monde de Boulangerie (the World Cup of Baking). The holidays gave the new business a boost, but come January, there were bills to pay, and he and his wife, Heather, had a brand-new baby. Easter seemed a long way away. He thought king cakes might get them through the slack season. Mardi Gras was a big deal in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he grew up and started his career. He’d baked a lot of king cakes there. Seattleites took longer to embrace the ritual. Ten king cakes sold that first year; last year the number climbed past 700.
Leaman introduced paczki (pronounced POONCH-key) about six years ago, reluctantly at first. Ever since he’d fried doughnuts on the night shift at his first baking job, while still in high school, he’d wanted nothing to do with them. But a baker friend from the Midwest, where people clamor for paczki, convinced him to give them a try. Production quickly outgrew the small used fryer he initially bought. Last year he made more paczki than he could count — upward of 1,000 paczki a day — and fried them all himself. This year he’s thinking of hiring help. Only night owls need apply.