As winter sets in, there’s nothing like sitting in a cosy café with a warm drink. In Poland, December is the time of year to get a mulled wine or winter tea (herbata zimowa) – a fruity blend of fresh lemon, orange, ginger, and other Christmassy spices. It is, of course, also the time of year to eat something sweet. Luckily, Poland is a haven for the sweet-toothed, with all sorts of satisfying pastries and desserts that often go back hundreds of years to the Polish royal family. You might recognise Polish chocolate waffle bars like Prince Polo and Grześki, but did you know that chocolate first entered Poland in 1665 when the military commander and rising politician Jan Sobieski asked his newly-wedded wife Maria Kazimiera d’Arquien to send him some from her native France? The chocolate must have done the trick – nine years later the nobleman was elected King Jan III Sobieski. Not all of the country’s sugary delights have such regal roots, but in the spirit of the season, here’s a brief guide to sweet Poland.
Pączki – doughnuts
When I think of doughnuts, I instinctively imagine the multicoloured, glazed American variety or the German-style Berliner. It came as a surprise to me to learn that Polish doughnuts – called pączki (ponch-kee) – were in popular existence long before the Americas were settled and probably around a similar time to the first German dough-based treats. Pączki emerged in Poland during the Middle Ages, starting off as tough dough balls before evolving into the lighter, springy versions that exist today. Their fillings are gorgeous, incorporating the jam and custard flavours familiar to Brits, but also expanding into everything from stewed plum to advocaat liqueur. They’re not only sweet either. One of the traditional pączki fillings is rose hip jam (róża), which lends an unexpected tartness to offset the sugar glazing and orange zest on the outside. Best of all, pączki are cheap and plentiful in Poland – small doughnut bakeries sell warm pączki on many town high streets. In the winter months, a warm chocolate pączki is a delightful treat. But for those with a big appetite, the pre-Lent Fat Thursday (Poland’s version of Shrove Tuesday) is the best time to explore pączki in all their doughy glory.
Ciasto – cakes
Polish bakeries can be intimidating places, simply because of the sheer number of cakes on offer. The same goes for regular food shops, which often have a counter serving all sorts of baked goods by the kilo. It’s much easier to sate your sweet tooth in a café, where you’ll usually come across three mainstays: szarlotka, beza and sernik.
I always think of szarlotka as a hybrid of the British apple pie and apple crumble – its sweet apple filling is cased like a pie, but with a distinctly soft, crumble-like pastry. The name is the Polish way of saying ‘charlotte cake’, suggesting that it first came to Poland from France in the early 19th century. Today it’s served everywhere, sometimes warm with cream or vanilla ice cream on the side. Beza feels like a strange cake to mention, as it’s essentially a pavlova, which seems pretty un-Polish. My guess is that – as with other Polish dishes – French-inspired meringues arrived in Poland in the 18th century and were quickly combined with the country’s abundant wild berries. The result is a popular, gooey pleasure. Sernik is probably my favourite Polish cake. In contrast to its American and British cousins, this Polish cheesecake is made from ricotta-like twaróg cheese and baked without a base. This means that sernik has a dairy richness with a soft crumbly texture – the perfect accompaniment to an afternoon coffee.
It would be criminal to write about desserts in Polamd without mentioning its ice-cream (lody), a creamy treat made with local flavours (black sesame or pumpkin, anyone?). As it’s winter and far too cold to even contemplate ice-cream, I’ll move swiftly on to two Christmas specials: piernik and makowiec.
Gingerbread has a long history in Poland, dating back to 1380 and specifically to the town of Toruń. Owing to the abundance of Polish flour and honey – and a location on the cross-continental spice trade route – bakers in Toruń developed gingerbread recipes that subsequently became iconic across the country (the pianist Chopin was an early fan). At Christmas, the piernik gingerbread cake is served, a real labour of love that takes weeks to mature properly. Small pierniki gingerbread cookies are also baked, shaped like stars and sometimes cased in chocolate – a quintessentially Christmas taste.
Makowiec is a staple of the Polish Christmas dinner, which takes place on 24th December (although it’s also eaten at Easter). Unusual to a British palette, this cake is made from a yeast dough and looks like a strudel from the outside. Once you cut it open, you’re greeted with layers of ground poppy seed, honey and dried fruit or nuts. In pre-Catholic Slavic traditions, poppy seeds symbolised a connection between the living and the dead, hence the serving of the cake on occasions related to Christ. The best makowiec is moist from the honey and sweet from the fruit, with the poppy seeds providing an intriguing taste and texture.
There’s many more sweet treats to sample beyond the classics above. Christmas is the perfect time to enjoy them, alongside other traditions such as Saint Nicholas Day (Mikołajki) presents tucked under pillows, and the twelve dishes of Christmas Eve dinner (Wigilia). As 2018 – the centenary of Polish independence – draws to a close, I hope that you’ve enjoyed my cultural tour of Poland. Perhaps in 2019 you can try it all out for yourself. Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku!