RAVENSWOOD — At the Julius Meinl patisserie on Ravenswood Avenue, the kitchen was humming before dawn as staff prepared to crank out more than 1,000 krapfen for Fat Tuesday.
"I came in at 3:30 in the morning," said Rochelle DuBridge, Meinl's executive pastry chef. "I feel like I need to take a shower."
To her knowledge, Meinl, 4115 N. Ravenswood Ave., is the only bakery in Chicago that produces krapfen, Austria and Germany's answer to the paczki, Chicagoan's Mardi Gras fried dough of choice.
"A lot of people are like, 'What is krapfen?'" said DuBridge, who describes the pastry as a smaller version of paczki. "It makes us a little more unique."
While Chicago's large Polish population has ensured the dominance of paczki over the years, Lincoln Square's German community has remained loyal to krapfen.
"In Germany, you can get these year-round," said Dagmar Freiberger, a native of Dusseldorf and former chairwoman of DANK Haus, the German American Cultural Center, 4740 N. Western Ave.
"They do special fillings at Mardi Gras — Nutella is the best," she said.
Carole Himmel, co-owner of Himmel's restaurant, 2251 W. Lawrence Ave., routinely fries up 5,000 krapfen each Mardi Gras season for special events.
With such volume, why does krapfen play second fiddle to paczki?
"It's a really great question," said Himmel, who grew up shuttling between Chicago and Munich. "We've always made them, we just haven't sold them."
Last Friday, Himmel led a krapfen-making demonstration at DANK Haus. The class proved so popular, DANK had to turn people away.
Martina Sheehan, an Irving Park resident whose mother hails from Germany, snagged a seat and hoped to pick up a few pointers. "I tried a batch on my own and it wasn't as good."
Himmel obliged, divulging the secret to her krapfen — brandy.
Though Himmel serves up her krapfen plain, Meinl's DuBridge prides herself on her fillings, which have included creme brulee and coconut creme.
Meinl offers rotating flavors of krapfen every Friday and Saturday, only at the patisserie location.
"We'll make about 95 and have one or two left over," said DuBridge.
Thanks to a mention in TimeOut Chicago and a social media push, orders for krapfen exploded this Mardi Gras season.
"It boomed out of control," said DuBridge, who eventually had to cut off requests.
She started prepping last Saturday, cooking up quart after quart of homemade raspberry and apricot jam and apple butter.
Come Monday night, anticipation was so high, DuBridge had trouble falling asleep.
"It was like the night before going to Disneyland."
Lincoln Square resident Jeannette Lane popped in Tuesday morning to pick up her order of krapfen to share with co-workers.
"It's something we came to after we moved to Chicago," said the Minnesota transplant, who wasn't previously acquainted with the pastry.
"Any Chicago tradition that involves fried dough, we'll assimilate."