Piernik – Honey Spice Cake

Pierna is an old Polish word for spices and  piernik is a cake made with honey and spices.

Some sources say the name is from pieprz – 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 pain d’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 MikołajDecember 6thSt 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.

Piernik 1

Ingredients

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

Method

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!

Variation

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!

 

Piernik 2

This little honey recipe book has around 2 dozen recipes for piernik  to choose from! (miód is Polish for honey)

 

 

Ingredients

400g plain flour

1 tablespoonful of butter

120g of granulated sugar

2 eggs

250g runny honey

125ml of milk

1 teaspoon of baking soda

2 teaspoons of spices

Method

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 MikołajDecember 6thSt 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.

Ingredients

280g plain flour

1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda

180g of granulated sugar

2 teaspoons of  spice

100g of runny honey

2 eggs

Optional

Icing sugar to dust

Method

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.

Ingredients

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

Filling

Powidła, apricot or sour cherry jam

Optional

Lightly beaten egg white for a glaze

Method

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Polish Christmas

A Polish Christmas

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 century  the 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

  • Drying
  • Fermentation with Brine
  • Bottling
  • Smoking
  • Marinating
  • 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.

Advent

St Andrew’s Day –  30 November  is celebrated in Poland, and the eve  on  29 November 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.

Christmas Tree

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

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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.

Image result for szopka competition

The above  image is from  the  website    Poland.pl/tourism/traditions-and-holidays/

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.

Christmas cards

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.

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.

Wigilia – The Christmas Vigil

I wrote a whole post about this topic last year.

Wigilia – Polish Christmas Eve

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.

Presents

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.

Carols

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:

  • church music
  • to many with music from the Royal Court such as the Polonaise
  • to lively folk & dance music &
  • quiet lullabies.

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 star,
  • a crib,
  • 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:

  • Roast Pork Loin with Prunes
  • Roast Pork Loin with Cloves
  • Roast Ham
  • Duck with Apples
  • Roast Goose
  • Roast Chicken stuffed with minced pork
  • Veal stuffed and rolled
  • Cold Polish smoked sausages and meats
  • Home-made pate from liver and/ or rabbit or hare
  • And nowadays maybe even Roast Turkey – an imported idea or
  • Stuffed rolada (roulade) of turkey breast
  • There could also be Bigos a stew made from sauerkraut, fresh cabbage, tomato purée and assorted sausages and meat.

Cakes

  • Piernik
  • Keks – a light fruit cake/loaf
  • 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

xmas-1

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.

Karnawał – Carnival