I know, I know, Christmas is getting earlier and earlier each year, but for some reason, this year there is an extra bit of excitement in the air. I can’t quite put my finger on why the anticipation is building up already. Perhaps it’s panic setting in early, pretending to be excitement. It could also be something to do with the fact that we’ve all noticed prices creeping up and up and so we’ve all been trying to find ways of cutting back as much as we can. Christmas kind of blows a raspberry in the face of austerity as we all gather together to celebrate, over-eat and gift swap. However, Christmas doesn’t have to be about excess, we can do just fine without blowing the budget and hammering the credit cards. Simple things can give just as much, if not more, pleasure.
One thing that is becoming more and more popular is making your own Christmas gifts and as a foodie, I love nothing more than a culinary-based challenge. This year, Vanessa Kimbell set the ball rolling by making her own Sloe Gin and set her fellow foodies the task of making and entering a gift for her “Let’s Make Christmas” virtual gift swap. Since Vanessa doesn’t do things by halves, she took it one step further by extending an invitation for us to attend a food blogger gift swap at Fortnum and Masons. Whilst the venue may not be frugal, Vanessa has managed to drum up some wonderful support and we will all get the chance to sip tea and eat mince pies, whilst Dan Lepard judges our Christmas creations!
I’ll keep you posted with what I’m making for the actual event, but in the meantime, the deadline for the virtual challenge is looming. Actually, it’s tomorrow so I’d better stop waffling on.
In our house, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Polish gingerbread cake and Polish gingerbread biscuits and so today I called in the reinforcements, by way of inviting my Polish friend Monika over to help me make Pierniczki. Out came the Christmas cookie cutters and a traditional recipe, which we tweaked only slightly to make our festive creations.
Gingerbread and ginger biscuits are very traditional across the whole of Eastern Europe. In Poland, gingerbread is known as Piernik or Pierniczki whilst in Germany, gingerbread biscuits are called Lebkuchen. I was very intrigued to find out that in Poland, the tradition of making gingerbread dates back to 13th Century, in a town called Toruń. The location meant that there was plenty of wheat or rye flour as well as locally made honey. Spices were brought in from India via Germany or through the Baltic port of Gdańsk.
Pierniczki have always formed a part of my Polish heritage and this is mainly due to the fact that they have always been given traditionally as gifts. They can take many forms, covered in chocolate and made to a slightly cakier recipe, they become known as Katarzynki (try saying that after a few sloe gins) and as well as biscuits, often heart-shaped and ornately decorated by hand. There is also a very traditional gingerbread cake or loaf, layered with damson jam and again, coated in chocolate. Mnn!
So, the Let’s Make Christmas challenge seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to make the Pierniczki of my childhood and give them, as gifts. There are probably as many recipes for Polish gingerbread as there are people in Poland, so I’m not claiming this one as the original or even the ultimate, but it is fairly straightforward and easy to make.
Polish gingerbread biscuits should be quite dark in colour, once baked they are very firm to the touch, almost too difficult to snap, but after a few days they soften and develop more and more flavour and aroma. They can be decorated with writing icing, or icing that is made to a quite thin consistency. This bit is actually quite hard and more practice is needed by me!
Monika and I also cut out a few snow flakes using ready to roll icing. You can either make them as edible cookies, or make a small hole in the top (I used the tip of a chopstick once they were cooked) and then thread some ribbon through to make Christmas tree decorations.
- 110 g Unsalted Butter
- 110 g Soft, dark brown sugar
- 8 tablespoon Runny Honey
- 1 Free range egg
- 450 g Plain Flour or Rye Flour
- 2 teaspoon Baking Powder
- 2 teaspoon Ground Ginger
- 2 teaspoon Cinnamon Powder
- 2 tablespoon Mixed Spice
- 2 tablespoon Cocoa Powder
- 100 g Icing Sugar
- 1 tablespoon Water
- Pre heat your oven to 200 degrees celcius and lightly grease 3 baking trays with butter.
- In a small pan, melt the butter with the soft, dark brown sugar and runny honey. Stir just until the butter has melted in. Put the pan to one side.
- In a large bowl, sift the dry ingredients together, mix well and then add the egg. Mix again.
- Pour the melted butter mixture into the dry ingredients bowl and mix it together until the dough starts to come together.
- Tip the mixture out onto a board and knead it into a ball of dough. If the mixture is too crumbly, add a tablespoon of water at a time and knead again until it comes together.
- Sprinkle some flour onto a clean, flat surface and roll out the dough. It needs to be about as thick as a pound coin. Cut out shapes using cookie cutters and carefully lift the cookies onto the baking trays. You should fit ten cookies per tray, they don't spread too much. You can cook them in batches for 7-8 minutes per batch.
- Whilst the cookies are cooking, make your icing by stirring the water into a bowl of sifted icing sugar. Mix it really well until you have a thick paste that will pour evenly off a spoon. Use a piping bag fitted with a writing nozzle to decorate your cookies. Alternatively, you can buy very good writing icing in the shops, decorate them in any colour you like.
- When the cookies have baked, they should be golden and will still be a bit soft. Take them out, carefully lift them onto a cooling rack using a pallette knife and leave to cool. I used a chopstick to make small holes in the top of my cookies, but be careful not to break the top off the cookie by pressing too hard.
- The cookies can be stored in a tin once cooled, they will soften. They will keep for up to two weeks, unless used as Christmas tree decorations, in which case, they can be left on the tree!
I hope you like them and I hope you find the time to have a go at making them too. I’m not going to turn into Kirsty Allsop and make all my Christmas gifts, but we did have lots of fun making these and they are a lovely rainy day project when there are little helpers, or little help-yourselves, around.