Deeply aromatic spices, dark with honey and full of the jammy tartness of plums and prunes – introducing Polish piernik, a traditional gingerbread cake. This particular one is made well ahead of the Christmas rush as the dough needs to mature meaning it’s one less thing to worry about when things get a little crazy. I can’t imagine Christmas without piernik’s aroma filling the house and it always has a place on our Christmas Eve table alongside poppyseed cake and apple charlotte.
I am posting this recipe in case you didn’t get a chance to take part in my “Stir-up Sunday but not as you know it” event that I hosted via Facebook. While I appreciate it is too late for 2015, this post is early for the 2016 preparations…
The dough is made 4-6 weeks before Christmas and left to mature somewhere cool. The high content of honey, low temperature and access to air ensure it doesn’t spoil. In fact, I know of people who make this dough as early as September! Five to seven days before Christmas, the cake is baked and its layers assembled. It is then left to rest again in order to soften before being covered in chocolate a day before serving. I am using my home made gingerbread spice to make this particular cake that little bit more spicy, almost peppery and definitely warming. Here is the recipe:
- 500 grams of natural honey
- 150 grams of unsalted butter
- 100 grams of lard (can be replaced with unsalted butter instead)
- 300 grams of caster sugar
- 1 kg of plain flour
- 3 tsp of baking soda
- 125 ml of full fat milk
- 3 medium eggs
- 1/2 tsp of salt
- 80 grams of home made gingerbread spice (alternatively 2/3 of the listed quantities of the spices – see recipe on the blog)
- 600 grams of plum butter or jam
- 300 grams of marzipan (optional)
- 80 grams of unsalted butter
- 200 grams of good quality chocolate (dark,milk, white – the choice is yours)
You will need a large bowl – stoneware or glass is fine but not plastic or metal. A clean tea towel and a string or a band big enough to go around your bowl. A mixer will come in handy – otherwise, plenty of elbow grease and a decent mixing spoon will be needed.
Begin by weighing and measuring all of the ingredients with the exception of the spices, whether it’s the home made gingerbread spice or the individual spices. We want to preserve their aromatic qualities for as long as possible. Don’t break your eggs just yet either.
Gently melt the butter with the honey and sugar over a very low heat. Keep stirring the mixture until the sugar is fully dissolved. Remember to keep the heat to a minimum so as not to burn the honey. Once the sugar is dissolved, take the honey mixture off the heat and set aside to cool down.
Once the honey mixture has cooled, prepare the dough. Dissolve the baking soda in the milk. Add the flour, eggs, salt and the spices to the honey mixture. Pour in the milk mixture. Using a mixer or a very sturdy spoon, combine all the ingredients together until all of the flour has been incorporated. This will take a few minutes as the dough will be quite thick. Once all the ingredients are combined, stop stirring. Leave the dough in the bowl.
Using a clean tea towel and a string, cover the bowl. I am using a double layer of muslin squares. Foil can also be used as long as you make holes in it as the dough needs to breathe. Please don’t use cling film.
The dough is now ready to be placed somewhere cool and dark to rest. The fridge is ideal, but a dark attic will do too. To stop the dough from picking up other smells in the fridge, the bowl can be further placed inside a loose carrier bag while maturing.
A week or so before Christmas, remove the gingerbread dough from the fridge. It should be very fragrant, slightly darker in colour and much firmer compared with when we originally made it. This is one of the loveliest doughs to work with, really easy and pliable, although you will need to flour the surface and your rolling pin.
Preheat the oven to 170°C. Line two shallow baking trays with baking paper and butter them lightly. I have used 35 x 23 cm trays and baked four cakes as well as filled gingerbread hearts using the full quantities given in the recipe.
Dust your counter or a rolling mat with some flour and place the dough on it. You might find it easier to work in batches. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough out into a rectangular shape, roughly the same size as your baking tray and approximately 0.5 cm deep. Transfer the shaped dough onto the prepared baking tray. Repeat the same for the other tray. The dough will rise as it bakes, roughly to double the thickness.
Bake the cakes for 15 to 20 minutes until golden brown. Remove from the oven and carefully transfer onto the cooling rack. Bake another two cakes and allow them all to cool. You can stop at three cakes if you wish – I only baked the fourth one in case of an accident. It is also okay to use the same baking tray if you only have one tray available.
Once the cakes are completely cool, it’s time to assemble the gingerbread cake. I am using prune butter jam as it’s deliciously tangy and it cuts through the sweetness of the cake. Plum jam is the traditional filling for piernik but you can use any jam as long as it is a little bit tangy and not too runny. You can add chopped nuts and apricots to the jam if you wish. You can also add a layer of marzipan to the cake. I further layered mine with a marzipan prune paste by mixing 300 grams of chopped and stoned prunes with 100 grams of icing sugar, 200 grams of marzipan and 4 tablespoons of dark rum. This is optional.
Warm the jam in a pan and spread a generous amount over the first layer of cake remembering to leave a border of about 1 cm. Place a thinly rolled layer of marzipan on top of the jam. Spread another layer of cake with more jam and place that on top of the marzipan, jam face down. Cover the top with more jam and another layer of marzipan. Spread the last layer of cake with the remaining jam and place it on top of the marzipan, jam face down.
The cake is now assembled. Wrap it loosely with some baking paper and place it onto a chopping board or back in the baking tray. Place another baking tray or chopping board on top of the cake. Transfer the cake somewhere cool (but not the fridge) to rest for 3 to 4 days – a cold conservatory is perfect. The cake needs to be able to breathe and absorb moisture so that it becomes soft.
Place a handful of heavy books on top of the cake ensuring that the weight is distributed evenly. By leaving the border around the cake when spreading the jam, you shouldn’t have any leaking jam coming out the sides.
Leave the cake to rest for three to four days by which time it should be softer. It is now ready to be iced or covered in chocolate and decorated with nuts, marzipan stars or sprinkles.
A day before serving, trim the cake’s edges so that it is neat. My cake has been cut in half length ways as I like the slices to be just right in width without the need to cut them in half. Obsessive, I know. Prepare a chocolate coating by melting 80 grams of unsalted butter in a small saucepan. While the butter is melting, chop 200 grams of chocolate. What type is up to you. I’m using a mixture of milk and dark as Mr A doesn’t like dark chocolate. Personally I think dark chocolate works really well here as it balances the sweetness of the gingerbread with the tanginess of plums.
Once the butter has melted, remove from the heat and add the chopped chocolate. Leave to stand for 2 minutes then stir it all together to ensure all the chocolate has melted. Leave aside to cool so that it thickens slightly. Pour the chocolate coating all over the cake from the top and guide the chocolate towards the edges. Smooth the sides using a palette knife or a spatula.
Decorate the top however you like. I have used marzipan and edible gold stars on one of my cakes. The other one was adorned with toasted nuts. Once decorated, leave it to set. Store it somewhere cool (again, not the fridge) loosely wrapped in baking paper or a clean tea towel so that it doesn’t dry out. It will keep for two weeks – if it lasts that long!
That’s it. Delicious piernik, ready to be consumed with a good cup of coffee or a very cold glass of milk. It should be warm with the spices and deeply aromatic, meltingly soft and jammy with the plum butter. Why not share it with your family and friends on Christmas Eve? I do hope you like it. Enjoy x