There’s a lot of history behind Piernik: it’s Polish gingerbread, which is traditionally eaten at Christmas. Piernik comes in many shapes and sizes, and some versions can be left to mature for months or even years before being baked. This quick version is a soft cake, flavoured with gingerbread spices and plum jam, and decorated with chocolate ganache.
|Preparation time: 30 minutes||Cooking time: 60 minutes|
|Difficulty: Easy||Serving size: 20 slices|
For the Cake:
- 300g/10.5oz/2 3/4 cups of wholemeal or wheat flour
- 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder
- 2 tablespoons of gingerbread spice (comprising 2 tsp cinnamon 3/4 tsp ginger, 1/4 tsp ground cloves, ¼ tsp ground cardamom, ¼ tsp nutmeg, ¼ tsp apple pie spice, ¼ tsp black pepper)
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 200g/7oz/1 cup of granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons of honey
- 250ml/2.5dl/just under half a pt/1 cup of milk
- 100g/3.5oz/just under half a cup of butter, melted
- 3 eggs
- 1 tsp coffee powder, mixed into 2 tsp boiling water
- 200g/7oz/just over half a cup of plum jam
- 50g/5oz/half a cup of raisins, briefly scalded with boiling water and drained
For the Ganache:
- 100g/3.5oz/⅝ cup chocolate
- 2 tbsp milk or cream
- 50g/2 oz/¼ cup butter
- Extra butter for greasing
Make it vegan: replace the honey with a vegan honey like Honea, or with golden syrup, and use vegan milk (like soya, almond or oat milk) and plant based margarine instead of dairy. Likewise, replace the milk and butter for the ganache with plant based versions, and use vegan chocolate.
- A 20×30 square baking tin or a large round baking tin, or two 10×30 loaf tins
- Pastry brush
- Baking paper
- Two large mixing bowls
- Preheat the oven to 180’C/360’F/Gas Mark 5.
- Line the tin/tins with baking paper, and brush the paper with a little butter.
- Sift the flour, cocoa, spices, soda and powder into a mixing bowl, and stir until combined. Then stir in the sugar.
- Add the eggs, milk, honey, coffee, melted butter, and half of the plum jam, to a large mixing bowl and stir together.
- Add the flour mixture into the eggs mixture, mix thoroughly, then stir in the drained raisins.
- Pour the mixture into the prepared tin or tins.
- Bake in the oven for 45-60 minutes, rotating halfway through cooking time if necessary. The cakes are ready when you can poke a fork through the surface and it comes out clean.
- Remove the cake/cakes and leave to cool. When ready, cut them in half so you have two layers. Then spread the remaining jam over one half, and place the top layer back onto the bottom.
- For the topping, add the chocolate, milk and butter to a saucepan and place it over a medium heat. Stir constantly until the chocolate is melted and everything is well combined. Remove from the heat and leave to cool. Then spread over the cake.
- When the cake is cool, put it in the freezer for half an hour before cutting it in half- if it’s cold it’s easier to cut it neatly without it crumbling.
Pronunciation: /‘pʲɛr.ɲik/ (peyr-nick)
Relatives: Liebkuchen, Pfefferkuchen (Germany), Pryanik (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus), Malt Loaf, Parkin (UK), Pain d’Epices (France)
Gingerbread comes in many shapes and sizes, and its exact origins aren’t known. Ginger originates from South East Asia. It was first cultivated millennia ago by the Austronesian peoples and was domesticated in India and China, but it wasn’t introduced to Europe until much later. European precursors to modern gingerbread developed without the spice: the ancient Romans ate unspiced honey biscuits shaped into hearts, for example. An Armenian monk, Gregory of Nicopolis, is said to have introduced spiced gingerbread to France in 992, and different forms of gingerbread seem to have been popular from then on.
Before ginger was available, pepper was used to spice cakes. The Old East Slavic word for pepper was‘пьпьрь’ (pĭpĭrĭ): derived from this are the Polish word ‘pierny’ and Old Russian word ‘пьпьрянъ’ (Papiryan), both of which mean ‘peppery.’ From ‘peppery’ we get ‘piernik’- Polish gingerbread- and it’s close relative, ‘Pryanik’, which is popular in Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine.
Before sugar was available, honey was used sweeten cakes, and it was certainly a key ingredient in both Piernik and Pryanik. It was readily available in mediaeval Toruń, a city in the Kingdom of Poland’s north east, because bee keeping was popular in the surrounding countryside. Toruń was also supplied with copious amounts of rye and wheat flour, produced by farms on the fertile Chelmo and Kujawy lands that lay nearby. And the city’s northerly location facilitated its acceptance into the Hanseatic League, a confederation of Polish, Prussian, Dutch, Wendish, Livonian and Swedish guilds and market towns. This meant Toruń could trade with towns and guilds along the Baltic coast, and allowed it access to wider trade routes, which in turn facilitated the introduction of Asian products and spices to Toruń.
By the fourteenth century, Toruń had unprecedented access to honey, flour, spices, and prosperous trade.
The earliest evidence of gingerbread in Toruń is a reference, made c.1380, to the baker Mikołaj Czanie, who was known for producing spicy bread and cakes. Mikołaj was also apparently selling leftover beeswax to the Teutonic Order in neighbouring Livonia. This suggests his cakes were sticky and spicy, and he likely incorporated newly available spices like ginger. Soon, Toruń’s gingerbread was famous.
Its artisans closely guarded their craft- so much so that despite the Toruń’s early gingerbread fame, the city’s oldest surviving gingerbread recipe only dates to 1725. But in 1556, Toruń made a pact with its gingerbread rival, Nuremberg. From then on, Toruń’s bakers had access to Nuremberg’s closely guarded gingerbread recipes, and vice versa. As such, Toruń’s Piernik biscuits shares some similarities with Nürnberger Lebkuchen. Both are usually small, shaped biscuits, often coated in dark chocolate.
Toruń was particularly famed for its figural gingerbread. Artisans were paid more than mere bakers, and were required to train longer to learn their craft. A master artisan baker might make biscuits in elaborate shapes: heralds, knights, monks, and even kings. If a king, foreign dignitary, or otherwise distinguished person visited Toruń, they would be presented with a personalised gingerbread figurine. This might be huge in size, and could be elaborately decorated with a coat of arms, and even with gold plate. By the 17th century, the poet Fryderick Hoffman categorized Toruń Piernik as one of Poland’s four finest offerings, alongsist Gdansk’s vodka, Warsaw’s shoes and Krakow’s ladies. It’s so integral to Toruń’s history that if you visit the city’s old town today, you can visit the Muzeum Toruńskiego Piernika (Living Museum of Gingerbread), which was founded in 2006.
This form of Piernik is more like a cake or a loaf of bread than a biscuit. It’s quite similar to the British Malt Loaf, or Parkin, and to the French Pain d’Epices. Like Malt Loaf, it tastes better if left for a few days or even weeks after being baked. In fact, traditionally the dough is matured for a year or more, in a cold place like a cellar, before being taken to the oven. The longer the dough is left, the fluffier it becomes! Christmas Piernik would be made in December, then left to mature for a year, before being baked and eaten the next Christmas. It could be left for so long, that it was said a dough could be made on the day a daughter was born, left in the cellar to mature, then baked for her wedding day.
This version doesn’t need to be left to mature before being cooked. But it does taste better if left for a day or two after being baked.