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.
I used a rum butter cream made from 80g butter, 1 egg yolk 1 tablespoon of rum and around 230g of icing sugar.
Cream the butter and the egg yolk and add the rum. Mix in the icing sugar until you have the desired consistency.
More butter cream would have been better – I was trying to use the minimum this time!
I added chopped nuts to the top and sides (I used a cake stand with a small lip – a totally flat stand would have make it easier to add the nuts to the sides).
Served on – Tuscan China – Bird of Paradise – Hand Painted – 1930s
An Austrian Influence
A few weeks ago I bought an excellent Austrian cookery book in a charity shop.
I know that there is a lot of overlap & influence between Polish & Austrian Cookery and have enjoyed looking at this book and comparing my recipes with ones here.
On the back cover it says
“The culinary flavour of Austria is a gentle flavour. It knows of the fiery spices of Hungary and the elegance of French cuisine. It derives much of its strength from Moravia and much of its daring from Poland.”
For several of the cakes apricot or redcurrant jam is used to cover the top and sides of the cake before icing it.
For a walnut gateau, similar to my recipe, redcurrant jam is used.
I decided to do a variation of this with my walnut tort and to use raspberry jam.
The 2 cakes were made as above.
A poncz(sweet punch) was used made from 50ml of weak black tea and 1 tablespoon of sugar to drizzle the cakes.
The cakes were then sandwiched together with a raspberry butter cream using 60g Butter, 180g icing sugar & 2 tablespoons of raspberry jam which were creamed together.
Then the top and sides were covered with raspberry jam, warmed slightly for ease of spreading and then this was allowed to dry.
I then made a lemon icing with the juice of 1 lemon and icing sugar and used this to cover the top and sizes.
Served on Royal Grafton – Woodside – from the 1950s
This did not work too well – the icing I made was too stiff and I disturbed the jam underneath and got a mottled pink and white icing which then dripped down onto the base of the cake stand!!
However my friends thought the cake tasted wonderful and loved the combination of flavours, so I decided to make the icing with the juice of 1 lemon, 1 tablespoon of raspberry jam & icing sugar and see how that worked.
Do not cover the cake completely or it will go very soggy – cover it with a net or similar which will let the air circulate but keep insects off.
Alternative Icing 1
I decided to test out the raspberry icing over a creamed sponge cake – I used 4 eggs and equal amounts of butter, caster sugar and self raising flour and baked them in 2 x 20 cm anodised baking tins.
I sandwiched the cakes together with a layer of jam and the raspberry butter cream as above.
I then made a thick icing using the juice of 1 lemon, 1 tablespoon of raspberry jam & icing sugar.
Served on Aynsley – Las Palmas – 1960s
Alternative Icing 2
This icing was not as tangy as on the original cake so I tested this again with a more pouring, dripping glaze – this time using the juice a lemon, 1 tablespoon of raspberry jam & enough icing sugar to make a more pouring glaze.
I made just one 22cm round walnut cake and cut it in half & used a poncz(sweet punch) made from 50ml of weak black tea and 1 tablespoon of sugar to drizzle the cake.
A few thoughts!
With hindsight I would not use one cake again as it was hard to cut it through evenly & there were lots of crumbs – if I only wanted to use 4 eggs, I would make 2 smaller cakes.
I still have not got the icing quite right – this time there was too much & it was a bit too runny – maybe just the juice of half a lemon would be enough – however the taste was very good.
The cake improved over the next few days as the icing seeped into the cake.
Served on Colclough – Stardust – from the 1960s.
As with the cakes above do not cover the cake completely or it will go very soggy – cover it with a net or similar which will let the air circulate but keep insects off.
This mazurek is one my mother used to make. She used the peanut butter base for sernik as the base.
This quantity of pastry is enough for a small tin – 26cm x 16cm.
Grease and line the tin.
Pre-heat the oven to GM5 – 190ºC
Press the pastry into the tin and prick the surface of the pastry
Bake for approximately 20 minutes.
Leave the base to cool completely.
The original recipe used a sweet orange jam/sauce which you made from sweet eating oranges. After a while my mother improvised and used English orange marmalade to which she added a little water and some sugar and heated this up for a few minutes.
Use the orange/marmalade mixture whilst it is still slightly warm and pour this onto the base.
I have now found a jam from IKEA which is orange & elderflower , this has a really nice flavour – warm this slightly so it is easy to spread onto the base.
You need 3-4 tablespoons of jam.
Leave the orange jam to cool completely.
Over the orange jam is then poured a chocolate topping.
Corylus avellana is the hazelnut, also known as cobnut or filbert nut. In Polish it is orzech laskowy – which translates as nut of the forest and as its name implies hazel trees or bushes grow abundantly in Poland.
Turkey is the largest commercial producer of hazelnuts followed by Italy.
Ferrero SpA – makers of Ferrero Rocher and Nutella use 25% of the global supply of hazelnuts per annum.
Tort is a layer cake (in England the French word gateaux is used) – the layers of cake being sandwiched together with a butter cream (Sweet whipped cream was hardly known in Poland – with soured cream being the norm).
The word tort is originally from the Latin torta – flat cake or round loaf of bread.
A tort can be round or in a block shape – it often has very decorative piping – my decorations tend to be more simple!
A tort is often made for celebrations and is often very large – I have recipes which call for a dozen or more eggs!
The following recipe only uses 6 eggs!
This tort recipe uses hazelnuts which have been roasted and then ground.
I often buy my hazelnuts from a dried fruit & nut stall in Leeds Kirkgate Market. This the largest covered market in Europe and was founded in 1875 and has around 100,000 visitors per week.
On this stall you can buy : whole hazel nuts, roasted hazel nuts and ground roasted hazel nuts.
I use either roasted hazel nuts and grind them myself or roast the hazel nuts myself and then grind them.
Roasting Hazel Nuts
To roast hazelnuts put the shelled nuts on a baking tray and put them in an oven at GM 5 – 190°C for around 10 to 15 minutes – keep checking as it is easy to burn them.
Once they are done, leave them to cool and then rub off the papery skins between your fingers and discard them.
I use an electric grinder which is very useful.
225g caster sugar
225g roasted & ground hazelnuts
2 sponge fingers – crushed
Pre-heat the oven to GM5 – 190°C
Grease and line a 23cm x 32cm baking tray.
Mix together the ground hazelnuts and crushed sponge fingers.
Whisk together the eggs and caster sugar until they are pale and fluffy.
Fold in the nut mixture.
Pour the mixture onto the baking tray and bake for around 20 minutes until it is golden on top.
Take out and leave it to cool on a cooling tray.
Measure the length of the cake and cut it into 3 equal pieces.
A poncz (sweet punch for moistening the cake) is used on each layer.
I used one made from 150ml of weak black tea, 45 ml of rum and 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar.
Rum Butter Cream
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons of rum
300g icing sugar ( approximate amount)
Cream together the butter and egg yolks.
Add the rum and cream again.
Mix in the icing sugar till you have a smooth butter cream
Using a spatulas layer up the cake first with poncz on each layer and then the butter cream.
Cover the top and sides with the butter cream.
Make fancy patterns with spatulas (or you can do fancy piping if you wish).
Little spatulas for decorating with icing.
Tea plates are Silver Rose by Duchess from the 1950s & 1960s.
The cake slice is Water Garden by Portmeirion.
The same quantities and method as above can be used for two 18m diameter cake tins.
Here the poncz was made from 150ml weak black tea and 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar & coffee butter cream was used.
Coffee Butter Cream
1 egg yolk
3 tablespoons of very strong coffee
250g of icing sugar (approximate amount)
Making Strong Ground Coffee
Cream the butter and egg yolk.
Add the coffee and cream again.
Mix in the icing sugar until you have a thick butter cream.
Use the poncz to moisten the cake & layer up and coat with the icing.
Very useful cake lifter – from Lakeland Plastics – for moving the cake
Another cake lifter
Tea set is by Spencer Stevenson Co Ltd, who manufactured in England between 1948 and 1960. The design name is not known.
Green Teapot is Café Culture by Maxwell Williams.
Other Cake Sizes
3 eggs with 110g of roasted hazel nuts & 110g of caster sugar for 1 – 18cm diameter cake tin.
4 eggs with 150g of roasted hazelnuts & 150g of caster sugar for 1 – 22cm diameter cake tin.
I came across this recipe for a yeast dough mazurek in this little recipe book and was very intrigued by the method which is quite different from the usual yeast doughs and thought I would give it a go!
It turned out very well.
450g plain flour
100g granulated sugar
200g butter or block margarine
50g fresh yeast or 25g of dried yeast
190 ml of milk
200g of bakalie (dried fruits including currants, raisins, peel, figs, dates, prunes etc)
Warm the milk to hand heat and mix in the yeast.
Melt the butter on a gently heat.
In a bowl whisk the eggs with the sugar until they are light and fluffy.
Add the melted butter.
Add the milk and yeast mixture and mix thoroughly.
Leave in a warm place for 8 hours!
Grease and line a large baking tray 33cm x 24cm
Pre-heat the oven to GM5 – 190°C
Mix the bakalie(dried fruits) with the flour.
Mix the flour and fruits with the yeast mixture.
Place the dough into the tin – spreading it out evenly.
Place the dough onto the tray and put in the oven.
Bake for around 25 – 30 minutes.
Prick the surface of the cake with a fork in several places.
Leave it to cool in the tin for a while and then remove from the tin and place on a wire rack to cool.
Pour the hot chocolate topping over the top.
30g of granulated sugar
2 tablespoons of cocoa
2 – 3 tablespoons of water
You could double this amount if you want to it to cover all over and be a bit thicker.
In a small saucepan gently melt the butter and sugar .
Add the cocoa and water and mix it till it is all blended together.
You can decorate the top with dried fruit and nuts – you would really need to do double the topping ingredients for this,
Served on Royal Doulton – Counterpoint – 1973 – 1987