These cookies beautifully exemplify the rugged roots of Polish culture from centuries ago–or at least my exotic view of it. They are crunchy, gritty, and sharp-tasting. They are not very sweet, although a lot of honey goes into them. I can imagine munching on them after a long, exhausting trek through snowy, mountainous terrain. No buttery smooth mouthfeel. No rich tasting, sweet pillows of cookie to sink your teeth into. Basically, these cookies challenge our overly pampered taste buds of today. As far as sweet treats go, they seem to be on the healthy side. And it looks as though they can be stored forever (but I’m still testing out my theory).
Here is my 9-year old daughter sneaking a cookie.
Little did she know what she was in for. These are almost like ginger snaps, but with hardened honey keeping the cookie together. No eggs, no fats, and no dairy. It’s made up of rye flour, honey, and spices (and, in my case, baking soda, which is a more modern invention). Dip this cookie in some coffee, and the hardened honey begins to melt, and it tastes pretty interesting, uh, I mean, good. Quite a different cookie from today’s Polish gingerbread cookies, pierniczki.
It turns out that pierniczki are not just an icon in Polish cookery, but also in Russian cookery. In Russian, they are called medoviya prianiki. I came across a wonderful article from 2008 by Lisa Kies, The Prianiki Project, which goes over some history and works through several recipes to try to get the ultimate goal: tasty, moldable, old-style prianiki. She also did some comparison studies between her recipe of medovija prianiki with 14th Century English gingerbread cookies (made of honey and breadcrumbs), Dutch speculaas, German springerle, and German lebkuchen, the last of which we are probably most familiar with, especially if you’ve visited Trader’s Joe’s in the weeks leading up to Christmas. But boy was it a different cookie centuries ago. She found that the old recipe for lebkuchen was very similar to medovija prianiki, except that regular flour was used and sugar was added. But they baked the same way in that the cookies turned out hard and dry when cooled. In case you are wondering about the other cookies, the English gingerbread wasn’t baked and was more like a confection. The speculaas and springerle used other additives, like eggs and butter, so they produced altogether different cookies than lebkuchen but still different from what we know them to be today. Looks like over the centuries, improvements were made here and there.
I’m not too interested in taking advantage of the improvements right now as I am in tasting a piece of history. So, here we are at my attempt to make old-style pierniczki. I did keep the baking soda in it (which wasn’t invented until the 19th century), but I have read that it doesn’t make too much of a difference. With the baking soda, the cookies puff up during the second half of baking which is truly a sight to see!
First, I got the spices ready.
I then grated some orange zest and put it in a pan with some melted butter, cooking it until the zest was transparent.
Then it was time to multi-task at the stove. I toasted the rye flour in a big pan at the same time I heated some honey with a little bit of alcohol.
I stirred the flour to prevent burning in spots, while I skimmed “scum” off the top of the honey.
When the flour started to take on some color in patches, I took the pan off the heat.
I mixed orange zest and spices into the hot honey.
I scooped up almost a full tablespoon of baking soda.
And then added it to the flour.
It was time to put all the ingredients together. If I were being authentic, I would have used a wooden spoon, but, well, I wimped out. Using my electric mixer with the paddle attachment, I mixed the flour and then slowly poured the honey mixture into it.
I was in store for at least 15 minutes of mixing.
Doesn’t this look lovely?
It was getting harder and harder to mix as the minutes ticked by. I switched to a dough hook so that my ancient Kitchen Aid mixer didn’t overheat and die on me!
I formed balls of dough with my hands. I found that wetting my hands with water prevented the dough from sticking. The dough was actually surprisingly easy to handle.
I placed my dough balls on parchment lined cookie sheets, flattening them slightly.
For my first batch, I used 1 tablespoon of dough for each dough ball. I spaced them out pretty far apart.
Well, I didn’t space them far enough apart, because half way through baking, they grew to be huge, and the cookies ended up stuck together.
For my second and final batch, I used 1 teaspoon (rounded) of dough for each dough ball. This time, they did not fuse together while baking.
They were very delicate when fresh out of the oven, so they had to cool on the pan for a few minutes before being transferred to a wire rack to cool completely.
When completely cool, they were light, airy, dry, and crunchy. The crunch comes from the hardened honey, which makes for an interesting bite.
And there you have it–a blast from the past!