Two months to Christmas and I am posting this recipe so you have time to prepare for then.
I have tried out several piernik – honey spice cake recipes & many of them have been dreadful!
But at last I have found one that I am happy to share – I would describe it as a sort of soft biscuit.
This is piernik staropolski (in the old Polish style) and is a recipe which takes time to make, as the mixture is left for several weeks before it is baked – (10 days is the absolute minimum). This maturing enhances the flavour of the spices.
I have been reading that some people make their dough even earlier say in September before they bake it
The science for this will be really interesting – I presume it is a slow fermentation that is taking place & the high honey/sugar content, low temperature & access to air prevents the dough from spoiling.
250ml runny honey
125g Trex™ **
230g granulated sugar
2 eggs – lightly beaten
550g plain flour (may need more)
2 teaspoons of mixed spices or piernik mix (ground cinnamon, cloves, cardamom in equal parts)
large pinch of salt
1 & 1/2 teaspoons of baking soda
70 ml of warm milk
250g mixed dried fruit (raisins, peel, chopped dates and figs)
** The original recipe uses lard (pork fat) – I used Trex™ – a white solid vegetable fat.
Put the honey, sugar and Trex in a saucepan and heat gently, stirring the mixture till all the Trex is melted and the sugar dissolved.
Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool.
Mix the flour, salt & spices together.
Add this to the honey mixture and mix together first with a wooden spoon.
Add the beaten eggs to the mixture.
Dissolve the baking soda in the milk and add this to the dough and mix till you have a thick dough.
Knead this dough lightly for around 5 minutes (add more flour if the mixture is too wet).
Add in the dried fruits and knead them in lightly.
Form the dough into a ball.
Place the dough in a glass or ceramic bowl – not a metal one.
Cover with a linen or cotton cloth – tie the string around it to keep it covered.
Do not use cling film – as air needs to circulate.
You could use foil but you would need to prick in some air holes.
Place in a cool place (mine was put into my cool cellar) for a minimum of 10 days and up to 4 weeks.
I left mine for 2 weeks.
Ensure that the dough will not pick up any unwanted flavours such as onions or garlic by carefully choosing the place you store it.
Pre-heat the oven to GM2 – 150°C
Grease and line a 2 baking tins – 22 x 33 cm.
Take the ball of dough out of the bowl and cut it into two.
Flatten each piece lightly and make into a rough rectangular shape – can use a rolling pin.
Place this into the tim and with fingers push and press it into all the sides of the tin.
You can use the blunt end of a rolling pin.
Repeat for the other
Bake for around 55 -65 minutes – checking after 40 minutes and covering with greaseproof paper if it is starting to burn.
Leave the piernik to cool in the tin.
When it is cold, wrap it loosely in greaseproof paper and then a clean linen tea towel and leave in a cool place for 2 -3 days.
Cut each cake into two or three rectangles.
Remove the crusts – optional.
Dust with icing sugar or coat in chocolate melted with butter (40g butter : 100g dark chocolate).
You can use a thin white icing semi glaze instead of the chocolate.
You can store the piernik in an airtight tin – I think the chocolate coating helps to keep it longer.
I think of these as very British – but we all love them and they have become part of our Christmas Day celebrations. Originally the pies were made with meat and this idea of meat and spices came from the Middle East and it is thought to have been the brought back by the Crusaders.
I make these with the pastry that I learnt from my mother – a variation on kruche & półkruche, pastry (a richer shortcrust pastry). Using the proportion of 2 parts flour to 1 part butter.
200g plain flour
100g butter or block margarine
1-2 tablespoons of icing sugar
1 egg yolk
Juice of 1 lemon (and maybe 1 tablespoon of cold water)
Lightly beaten egg white
I always make my own mincemeat using the recipe in Delia Smith’s Christmas cookery book but without the chopped almonds (I do not like the crunch of the nuts).
When making the pies I add a little extra brandy or sherry to the mincemeat and stir it in.
My tins are anodised aluminium and have a gentle rounded shape, this I think make for the perfect balance between the pastry and the filling.
I put “tops” on my mince pies – but not fully covered ones.
The tops are brushed with beaten egg white and sprinkled with caster sugar.
Method for pastry
Rub the butter into the flour to make “breadcrumbs”.
Mix in the icing sugar.
First with a knife and then with your fingertips mix in the yolk & lemon juice (and maybe a tablespoon of cold water.)
You are aiming to get a dough which is not wet.
Rest for about 10 minutes.
Pre-heat the oven to GM6 – 200°C
You need to grease the tins well in order to get the pies out successfully.
I often use the pastry in two halves.
2 sizes of cutters are needed – 1 – 7cm diameter, plain, for the base, 1 – 6cm diameter, crinkle edge for the top.
Cut out the bases and place them in the tins
Place around a tablespoonful of mincemeat on the pastry.
Place the smaller tops on.
Lightly beat the egg white and brush this on the tops
Sprinkle caster sugar over the egg white.
Bake for around 15 minutes – keeping an eye on them – so they do not burn.
Leave to cool slightly in the tins & carefully remove them onto a rack to fully cool.
Tea-plate is Stardust by Colclough from the 1960s.
Grease & line a 2 lb loaf tin or use a paper liner
In a large bowl mix together the rye flour, plain flour and the spices.
In a small saucepan heat the honey to boiling point & turn it off the heat & allow to cool slightly.
Pour the hot honey over the flour and mix well.
Beat the yolks with the icing sugar until they are pale and fluffy.
Add this to the flour and honey mixture.
Mix the bicarbonate of soda with the water and mix this in.
Put the mixture into the prepared tin & smooth the top.
Brush the top with cold water.
Bake for around 40 minutes in the long tin & 1 hour in the loaf tin. Check earlier and cover with greaseproof paper to stop burning if necessary.
This piernik is not very sweet and could be split in half and sandwiched back together with powidła – Polish plum spread (see notes in previous piernik post) and covered in a chocolate coating made from melted butter & dark chocolate.
I just had it sliced and spread with powidła (Polish plum spread) or sour cherry or raspberry jam.
Served on La prune by Jet for Ter Steege in The Netherlands.
In Medieval times in Britain on Christmas Eve a porridge made with oats, to which was added dried fruits, spices and honey was eaten. This was the origin of Christmas Pudding.
The spices used were a reminder of the Wise Men – the 3 Kings that came from the East.
By the 16th Century as ovens became more in use, butter and eggs were added and wheat flour replaced the oats and this became the Christmas cake.
We never had this cake at home until sometime in the late 1970s when my mother tried out this recipe from a magazine.
It is a very moist cake and reminiscent of Christmas pudding.
Because it is so moist it will only keep for about 2 months but it is one that can be made really at the last minute and one year I made it just 4 days before Christmas.
However if you want to add marzipan & icing then you should make it about 2- 3 weeks in advance, to give time for this to be done.
900g mixture of currants, raisins & sultanas
175g chopped mixed peel (if you have a 200g tub just use it all)
175g glacé cherries cut in half (if you have a 200g tub just use it all)
Grated rind of 1 lemon & 1 orange
1 large cooking apple, peeled and coarse grated
225g fine grated carrots
1 teaspoon rum
110 ml strong cold tea (I use a scented one like Earl Grey)
350g Butter or block margarine
350 g soft dark brown sugar
4 tablespoons of black treacle
6 large eggs – beaten
400g plain flour – sieved
½ level teaspoon salt
6 level teaspoons mixed spice
½ level teaspoon of cinnamon
½ a grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon cocoa – yes cocoa! – sieved
1 tablespoon ground almonds (optional)
Put all the fruit, carrots, rum & tea into large bowl, mix and leave for 15 minutes.
Pre-heat the oven to Gas Mark 2 – 150oC.
In another large bowl, cream the margarine and sugar, beat in the treacle and eggs.
Mix all the dry ingredients together & fold them in using a large metal spoon.
Fold in the fruit mix using a large metal spoon.
This amount will make one of the following cake sizes:
10” square – I find this shape the best to cut up.
8” round plus a small loaf.
Grease and line the cake tin
Put all the cake mixture into the tin to fill the shape and smooth the top.
Bake at Gas Mark 2 – 150oC for
10” square – 2 ½ hours
10” round – 3 ½ hours
8” round plus a small loaf (I have never tried this – will suspect around 2 hours).
The above are guides as it does depend on your oven – you need to check earlier.
Leave to cool completely in the tin.
Wrap in several layers of foil to store.
Decorating the cake
It depends on who is coming and whether there are lots of marzipan & icing lovers on how much I decorate the cake.
Sometimes I just dust the top with icing sugar.
Sometimes I just have marzipan on the top dusted with icing sugar – but lately I have had marzipan & Royal Icing lovers coming so have decorated the top & used a cake frill around the sides.
Marzipan is a paste made from ground almonds, honey or sugar & egg white.
It is thought that it originated in China and then came to the Middle East and from there it came to some parts of Western Europe through Spain & Portugal and to Eastern Europe from Turkey.
The old name in English is marchpane and the Polish is marcepan and the name appears to come from Italy where it was known as panis martius or marzapane which means March Bread – but why March Bread – I am notsure!
It was certainly being used in the 15th century in Europe.
Preparing the cake for marzipan
Brush the surface of the cake with warmed apricot jam.
I usually make my own marzipan but of course you can buy ready made marzipan.
If you are going to ice the cake as well then allow 1 week for the marzipan to harden so the nut oils do not discolour the icing (If you know it will be eaten quickly this is not really a problem).
Ingredients per egg white
1 egg white
75g ground almonds
40g icing sugar
40g caster sugar
1 -2 drops of almond essence
I usually do a 3 egg white amount of marzipan
In a bowl mix the ground almond, icing sugar and caster sugar.
Lightly beat the egg white & add the almond essence.
Add the egg white mixture to the dry ingredients and mix together with a wooden spoon until you get a unified mass of marzipan.
You want a mixture that you can roll out – you may have to add more icing sugar to achieve this.
You need to dust a board with icing sugar to roll out the marzipan easily.
This icing uses egg whites and give a firm icing good for doing fancy decorations (which I do not do!).
Using sugar to make icing was a sign of wealth & power and this became very popular in Victorian times.
It was used on Queen Victoria’s wedding cake in 1840 and so got the name Royal.
You can ice right up to the last minute but it does take around a week for the icing to fully harden.
Ingredients per egg white
1 egg white
300g icing sugar
Juice of 1/2 lemon ( this is optional but I usually use it)
If just doing the top of the cake I would use 2 egg whites.
You can buy powdered Royal icing which is icing sugar & dried egg white and you just add water or water & lemon juice. (I have used it but have used fresh egg whites as well!)
Lightly beat the egg whites and then mix in the lemon juice.
Add the icing sugar a few tablespoons at a time and keep mixing until you have have the icing thick enough to work with.
Spread the icing on top of the marzipan using a small spatula & have a mug of hot water at hand to dip the spatula in.
I do not do any fancy icing – just random peaks – also achieved using a spatula.
Some new Christmas cake decorations bought recently
Pierna is an old Polish word for spices and piernik is a cake made with honey and spices.
Some sources say the name is frompieprz – pepper or piorun – thunderbolt or devil – because of its spiciness.
These cakes have been known in Poland since the 12th century and the spices would have come from Turkey (originally brought back by the crusaders) or India.
The very first recipes were just honey, flour (wheat or rye) and spices.
Honey was the original sweetener, long before sugar, and when you travel in Poland you will find many village ladies selling their own honey, the taste varies greatly depending on where the bees have found their flowers and the honey from a forest region is very dark and full of flavour.
Piernik can vary from being a soft dense cake to a drier but soft biscuit.
The Polish town of Toruń is famous for its piernik and Chopin was very found of this.
Pierniki (plural) coated with chocolate are called Katarzynki – which means Katherine’s cakes – named after Katarzyna the daughter of one of the bakers.
Similar cakes are found throughout Europe including the French paind’éspices, the Dutch peperkoek and the German lebkuchen.
Piernik is often translated as Gingerbread but ginger is only rarely used!
The main spices used are cinnamon , cloves and cardamom with the addition according to different recipes of: aniseed, black pepper, caraway, coriander, nutmeg, dried orange and/or lemon peel and then in later recipes allspice which is from the New World.
Spice Mixture for Piernik
Having looked at many recipes I have made my own basic 3 spice mixture – to which I can add other spices if I want a variation.
I have mixed equal parts of ground cinnamon, cloves & cardamom & saved them in a jar.
In Polish shops in England you can buy ready mixed spices for piernik.
This little packet contains around 2 tablespoons.
You can use the mixed spice mixture which is sold by Marks & Spencer which contains: dried orange peel, cassia (a variety of cinnamon), ginger, nutmeg, pimento (allspice) and caraway.
Piernik in Poland is associated with the Christmas season and would be made for Christmas Eve and for Christmas Day, it would also be made for Święty Mikołaj – December 6th – St Nicholas Day. This a day for present giving in Poland to children and I would always get a piernik shaped and decorated to look like the bishop that was St Nicholas.
I have been looking through my many recipe books and there are just dozens of different recipes & I have been trying some of these out.
Many of the recipes have the addition of chopped nuts and/or mixed peel – I have not added these to my tests as I just wanted to try out the “basic” recipe.
Some of the recipes were for large quantities & I have cut them down in size. Many do not give baking tin sizes or oven temperatures – so I have done a bit of trial and error with some of the ones I have done.
In many of the recipes the dough or batter once mixed up is left for up to 3 weeks before baking. This indeed is a slow fermentation!
Even if the piernik is mixed and baked on the same day, most of them benefit from being wrapped and left for several days before serving.
The recipes in this post are ones you mix and bake on the same or the next day.
My mother made miodownik – honey spice cake (which could be classed as a piernik). Hers is a more moist cake using vegetable oil, which is certainly a more modern ingredient.
This first recipe is adapted from a recently bought little cookbook.
The honey used in the book was given as fir tree honey – this would be a dark honey and would make the cake very dark.
(I remember getting some of this when one of my cousins came from Poland – it was nearly black!)
The honey you use will make a difference to the colour and flavour of the cake. I have used a basic clear type honey.
As only honey is used in this recipe, I think this one is nearer the old recipes.
450g plain flour
350g runny honey
125g butter or block margarine
Grated rind of a 1 lemon
1 egg – beaten
100ml of milk
1 + 1/2 teaspoons of spices
1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
pinch of salt
Pre-heat the oven to GM4 – 180°C.
Grease and line a large loaf tin – mine is longer than the regular 2lb tin.
Gently melt the butter in a small saucepan.
Mix together the spices, bicarbonate of soda and salt & add these to the flour in a large bowl.
Add the egg, the milk and the lemon rind and mix together.
Add the honey and the milk and mix together till you have a uniform smooth consistency.
Put the mixture into the tin and smooth the top.
Bake for around 50 minutes – checking a little earlier & cover with greaseproof paper it it looks like burning on the top if you need more time.
Leave to cool in the tin.
Wrap in foil to store.
The piernik can be dusted with icing sugar, topped with icing or with chocolate icing – of course these are relatively modern additions to the medieval piernik!
Addition of pepper
I made the piernik as above with the addition of 1/2 a teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper with the spices.
I did not think it added much to the flavour – I was expecting it to be a little peppery!
This little honey recipe book has around 2 dozen recipes for piernik to choose from! (miód is Polish for honey)
400g plain flour
1 tablespoonful of butter
120g of granulated sugar
250g runny honey
125ml of milk
1 teaspoon of baking soda
2 teaspoons of spices
Warm the honey slightly.
Put the flour in a large bowl and rub in the butter.
Add the sugar, bicarbonate of soda and the spices.
Mix in the eggs.
Add the honey
Add the milk & mix to give a very thick batter.
Cover the bowl with a cloth and leave it in a cool place for a couple of hours.
Grease & line a 32cm by 22cm baking tin.
Pre-heat the oven to GM 5 -190°C.
Put the cake mixture into the tin and spread it out.
Bake for around 30 minutes (check earlier and cover if it looks like burning.)
Leave in the tin to cool.
Wrap in foil and leave for a couple of days .
Tea plate is Sonnet by Royal Doulton, 1971 to 1998.
This piernik can be dusted with icing sugar, topped with icing or with chocolate icing.
It can also be cut into 2 slabs which are then sandwiched together with powidła which is a lovely spread – often translated as jam but is not really a jam.
It is made from fresh ripe plums which are heated and stirred for hours until the water is driven off and you get a thick paste. The traditional version does not have any extra sugar added.
I bought some in my local Polish shop, I have seen it for sale before in glass jars, this product is in a plastic tub
Pierniczki – Small Honey Cakes
Pierniczki are a small cake or biscuit version of piernik.
For Święty Mikołaj – December 6th – St Nicholas Day I often buy packets of these glazed with clear or white icing or chocolate (You can get them in lots of shops nowadays including Lidl & Aldi) but sometimes I make them myself as they are very easy & delicious.
280g plain flour
1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
180g of granulated sugar
2 teaspoons of spice
100g of runny honey
Icing sugar to dust
Pre heat the oven to GM 5 – 190oC
Grease several baking sheets.
In a bowl mix all the dry ingredients together.
Beat the eggs lightly and mix these and the honey into the dry ingredients.
Place tablespoons well apart on the greased sheets and bake for about 10 minutes.
They do spread quite a bit.
Leave to cool for a few minutes on the tray and then put the on a wire rack to cool and the dust with icing sugar.
Pierniczki – Small Honey Cakes (filled)
The dough for these is made the evening before.
120g runny honey
60g granulated sugar
2 teaspoons of spice
40g of butter
250g of plain flour
1/2 teaspoon of baking powder
1 large egg
Powidła, apricot or sour cherry jam
Lightly beaten egg white for a glaze
Heat the honey in a saucepan over a moderate heat and add the sugar and spices, stirring all the time for about 3 to 4 minutes so that the sugar is dissolved but do not let the honey boil.
Remove from the heat and allow it to cool.
In a separate pan melt the butter and then set that aside to cool.
In a large bowl add the baking powder to the flour.
Pour in the honey mixture, melted butter and the egg and mix with a a wooden spoon to form a soft dough.
Transfer to a small bowl and cover with a cloth and refrigerate overnight.
The next day -take out for 15 minutes before using.
Grease several baking sheets.
Pre-heat the oven to GM 4 – 180°C
You need a 6cm round cutter.
Cut the dough into halves or thirds.
Roll out the dough till it is thin and cut out circles.
Place a largish teaspoon of the powidła or jam on the middle of the circle (going for height).
The more jam the better but it can be hard to seal the circles – takes a bit of practice!
Place another circle on top and press the edges together firmly.
You can brush the tops with beaten egg white.
Place on the baking sheet – leaving some space between circles.
Bake for 15 minutes – checking earlier as they burn easily.
Leave to cool slightly on the tin before placing them on a wire rack.
Dust them with icing sugar.
Served on tea plates – Counterpoint by Royal Doulton 1973 – 1987.
Easy unfilled option
I think once you have tried the jam filled ones, these will be the only ones you want!
However if you want a harder biscuit to decorate with icing then just place single circles on the baking trays and bake for 8 – 10 minutes – you really need to keep an eye on these as they burn very easily.
These come out as a quite hard biscuit.
These can be decorated with icing or chocolate icing.
To understand a Polish Christmas one has to know about its historical and cultural background as these have shaped what we have today.
Poles love festivals and traditions and there seem to me to be more celebrations in Poland than in England with every possible Saint’s day or other opportunity for a gathering, with eating and drinking, taken.
Polish Recipe Books For Christmas
History & Background
In the first centuries AD, around the river Warta, between the river Odra (Oder) and the river Wisła (Vistula) was the cradle of Poland. (The Wisła runs from the Carpathian Mountains to the Baltic Sea.) This region was immense forest land but many areas along the rivers had been cleared. In the east of Poland there are still the remains of the primeval forest at Białowierza (White Tower), this is a National Park were bison and wild boar roam.
By the 5th century the “Amber Road” was the trade route from the Baltic in the North to the Mediterranean in the South.
In the 6th & 7th centuries, many different Slav tribes arrived there, and as by now more of the land had been cleared, they settled.
The People of the Fields
By the mid 10th centurythe Polanie tribe became dominant – these were the people of the fields – pole means fields in Polish.
Agriculture in General
Compared to England the summers are warmer and the winters much colder, a drier cold than in England, often up to -300 C, with lots of snow.
The fertile plains of Poland have made it an agricultural country and the people are close to the land and understand about the seasons and food production. Even now in towns people have vegetable gardens & allotments.
Main crops are wheat, rye, buckwheat, potatoes and cabbage.
Dill is a favourite herb, also flat leaf parsley and caraway.
Pork is the most popular meat.
Poultry and eggs are used extensively
Butter, milk, soured milk, smetana (soured cream), twaróg (curd cheese) feature in many recipes.
In the south in the Tatra Mountains they make smoked cheeses from sheep’s milk.
In the 16th century southern Poland was 40C warmer than it is today and grapes for wine were grown.
Food from the Forest
Mushrooms, fruits and berries are even today collected from forests, eaten, preserved or even sold at the roadside.
Fish are caught in rivers and lakes, fish farms are becoming popular.
Dried mushrooms provide a lot of flavour in the winter diet.
Food Preservation for the Winter
Fermentation with Brine
Jams – using sugar
Christianity in Poland
In 966 Duke Mieszko the First, Poland’s first recorded leader converted to Christianity.
By the 13th & 14th centuries Roman Catholicism was the main religion in Poland.
In the late 14th century the marriage of the Polish Queen Jadwiga to the Duke of Lithuania was on the promise of his and his people’s conversion to Christianity and the formation of a new enlarged Poland.
In the 16th century the Reformation did come to Poland and did have followers but it mostly died out following arguments between different factions & the Catholic counter reformation.
After the middle of the 17th century the main religion was again Roman Catholicism and is still so today.
Poland was more tolerant of different religions than many of its neighbours and by the early 20th century it had more Jewish people that any other country in Europe.
St Andrew’s Day – 30 November is celebrated in Poland, and the eve on 29November has many superstitions and traditions to do with foretelling the future especially with regards to future husbands.
The nearest Sunday to 30 November is the start of Advent, this can be from 27 November to 3 December so there are always 4 Sundays before Christmas day.
Advent is a time of reflection, prayer and preparation.
In the past Advent was like Lent; a time of doing without.
In Poland Christmas is celebrated from the evening of 24 December – Wigilia (the vigil) and parties and visiting relatives and family happens from then on.
It seems very strange to the Poles to have all the Christmas parties before Christmas when is still Advent.
The Christmas days are called Gody – days of Harmony and Goodwill
6 December – St Nicholas Day
Older pictures show Swięty Mikołaj (St Nicholas) in his bishop’s robes, newer ones tend to be more like the English Santa.
Presents were to be found on the doorstep or hidden in the house or under the pillow.
Pierniki – spiced honey cakes are given to children, often in the shape of the bishop.
He returns again on Christmas Eve after the evening meal.
It used to be that presents were given on just one of these days, usually 6 December and Christmas Eve was more about the meal and carols and Church.
Nowadays you are likely to get presents on both days.
Before the Second World War the presents were small tokens such as mandarin oranges (a luxury – as they were imported), chocolates, and an item of new clothes or a small toy.
The old Polish Tradition was to hang from the ceiling just the tip of a spruce/fir tree (tip side down) decorated with apples and nuts which were either wrapped in silver or gold paper or painted and ribbons. Old Polish Village houses are made of wood – so it was easy to attach the tree tip.
Doorways and walls were often decorated with separate boughs of the remainder of the tree.
This custom originated in pre-Christian times and texts dating back to the 15th & 16th centuries referred to this use of the tree as a pagan rite. Unable to halt the growing trend, the church then reinterpreted the tree to be the Tree of Knowledge – the tree of good and evil.
The tradition of using the whole tree came from Germany in the late 18th century and early 19th century first into the towns and then into richer villages and by the 1920s this had taken over.
In small flats and in towns, and with small funds, people often still just decorate a branch of a fir tree.
Decorations for the tree
Apples symbolise health & beauty, strength & vitality and paradise
Nuts wrapped in Silver or Gold guarantee prosperity & vitality.
When I was young we tied wrapped sweets & chocolates on the tree.
The Tree is put up on Christmas Eve (though nowadays maybe a day or 2 before) the whole family helps.
Decorated with glass baubles – in the past these were often blown eggs decorated with glitter. There are also many straw decorations – angels and stars.
Many of the old ornaments look like the apples and nuts of before.
Some of my mother’s old nut baubles with a few newer ones
Nowadays Polish Glass Factories make 2,500 glass baubles a day, some of them very elaborate and expensive.
Paper chains guarantee love within the family.
Candles and baubles guard the house from malevolent deeds.
The star on the top of the tree helps guide back absent family and friend
Bells symbolise good news
Angels are the guardians of the house.
Clip on candles holders with real candles though nowadays artificial lights are more likely to be used.
Photograph’s of my mother’s clip in candle holders.
Pierniki – spiced honey cakes with white icing were used in some areas.
Polish Cribs – szopka
Cribs are varied in Poland, mostly wooden and carved, often with the shepherds dressed in traditional Polish highland costume.
Every year In Krakow in the Grand Square (Rynek Glówny) there is a competition held on the morning of the first Thursday of December, of Christmas cribs.
Model makers come carrying their cribs and they are judged. The winners are kept in the Museum of Ethnography – the rest are sold.
I saw an exhibition of past winners when they were on tour in England in 2011 at The Lowry in Salford.
This competition began in 1937. It was intended to bring back to life a tradition which had died shortly after the First World War, that of the Crib Theatre and these cribs are portable theatres for traditional puppet Nativity plays.
These ornate cribs are very colourful and richly decorated. They are covered in coloured foils, and are inspired by the architecture of Krakow eg Wawel Cathedral and the unequal spires of The Church of the Virgin Mary – Mariatski
They can be from 15 cm high up to 2 metres high and some have clockwork mechanisms or lights.
In the past the Christmas cribs were mostly the works of Krakow masons in their idle weeks of the Polish rainy late autumn.
Nowadays it is a pastime of many Krakow dwellers of all walks of life. And the city boasts several dynasties of Christmas crib makers where two or three generations construct brand-new cribs every year.
In the past these were always postcards but now folded cards are coming in to vogue.
Copies of old cards from Zakopane from the 1930s – bought in the Folk Museum there.
From an Old Christmas Card from the 1930s
Cards are only sent to family and friends that will not been seen over Christmas.
In Communist times cards depicted, branches of fir trees and baubles, nowadays many religious cards are sent.
Often when Poles send cards to family abroad they include a piece opłatek. This was originally bread but now a paper thin wafer with an impression of the Nativity scene is used and is a symbol of forgiveness, unity and love.
The opłatek usually has the corner nipped off to show that this is being shared. My aunty in America always does this.
This is a very Important Meal – Poles want to be with their family on this evening.
This Christmas Eve supper became a fixed tradition in Poland in the 18th century.
It is a completely unique experience with an ordinary evening meal transformed into a celebration of family love and solidarity and it is also so strange that in a country of meat lovers this meatless meal is so important and loved.
The days before the meal were a time to thoroughly clean the house.
The day used to be a day Fasting & Abstinence as the last day of Advent – no meat on that day (abstinence) and only 1 main/large meal (fasting)
There are usually 12 dishes for the 12 apostles though some areas have an odd number of dishes either 7, 9 or 11.
I only make dishes which would have been available through food preservation in the winter or are seasonal.
If there are presents they are placed under the tree and opened at the end of the meal.
In some areas of the West of Poland– presents today come from Gwiazdor – Starman
In the South West of Poland from an angel or baby Jesus.
In Communist times to try and remove the religious idea – many tried to favour Gwiazdor often portrayed in red robes with gold star or even to introduce the Russian Grandfather Frost on January 1st – unsuccessfully.
However Gwiazdor had links with St Nicholas (Swięty Mikołaj) as he often carries a star in front of St Nicholas.
The oldest hymn/carol in the Polish Language is Bogurodzica (Mother of God) and is known from the beginning of the 13th Century.
Carols are rich and varied with examples from many different centuries with ones originating from:
to many with music from the Royal Court such as the Polonaise
to lively folk & dance music &
Many carols feature shepherds as the Poles from the countryside felt an empathy with them.
Bóg się Rodzi – a Polonaise( Polonez )– words from the 18th Century.
Przebieżeli do Betlejem – music from the 16th Century.
Carols are sung from midnight mass till 2nd February in Church.
Carollers went from the second day of the Holiday – 26 December until 6 January – carrying:
a stork – the New Year – new life
a baby goat – fertility
a bear – hostile forces of Nature
In some areas Carollers went from Christmas Eve – after their own meal.
They are welcome visitors however if your house is left out then this is seen as a sign of bad luck.
Food for Christmas Day
Many would say that this meal is just like a very special Sunday Dinner.
There are not as many must have dishes on Christmas Day
As with all Polish dinners there is soup to start and this would be most likely rosol – clear chicken consommé with small pasta pieces (the original chicken noodle soup)
There will be lots of MEAT with Pork Dishes mainly such as:
Tort – rich layer cake often made from hazel nuts.
Nowadays there will also there will be chocolates & these Polish dried plums with chocolate continue the tradition of dried fruits at Christmas time – I love them!
My China & Tableware – A New Tradition
Classic white china would be the norm for Christmas but over the last couple of years I have started to use china with poppies* and other red flowers at Christmas time as well as china with autumn and winter foliage from my collection of china.
*Although not a Christmas flower – these poppies are a remembrance to the Battle at Monte Cassino in May 1944 & the military song – Czerwone maki na Monte Cassino – Red poppies on Monte Cassino. As my father fought there, these are very special for me.
New Year’s Eve – Sylwestra
31 December is the feast of Saint Sylwester (Sylvester) and this is the name of the festival in Polish.
In the towns & cities the evening is often celebrated with a dance – no special traditional dishes – more of the Christmas Day type food.
Sleigh rides from house to house, with food at each, were popular in times gone by on the eve and on New Year’s Day.
The 3 Kings – 6 January – Epiphany
During the Christmas period the priest would visit all the homes of his parishioners and say prayers, bless the house and get an offering. He would also bless some chalk or blessed chalk would be obtained at the Mass on 6 January. This chalk is used on 6 January to write over the door frame in the house –
For example for next year – 2017
20+ K + M + B + 17
For the year and Kasper, Melchior and Baltazar – the traditional names of the kings.
To bless all who enter or leave in the coming year.
The end of the Christmas period
In the church – 2 February – Candlemas day – 40 days after Christmas – is the official end of Christmas and then karnawał starts – the festive time before Lent.