“Now, where are you, English speakers?”
A bodiced woman wearing a wreath of cinnamon sticks and pine needles had just finished an introduction (in Polish) to pierniki, Poland's storied gingerbread. The small crowd of 30 or so adults and children were clustered in the second story of Muzeum Piernika encircling a flour-dusted, fingerprint-smeared wooden table. I alone raise my hand.
I'm in Toruń—a small town historically known for its pierniki—to learn about the confection, but I'm running into a wall. I've traveled three hours northwest of Warsaw for a tourist trap. And one that's accommodating mostly Polish speakers, to boot.
Toruń's medieval center in many ways has been reduced to an old-world Hershey Park. The cult surrounding its gingerbread feels just as commercial. Women pipe needlepoint-esque icing patterns onto heart-shaped cookies in shop windows. Costumed vendors peddle spice-studded gingerbread ornaments from wicker baskets. Churchgoers stream past souvenir shops as they leave Sunday service in a Gothic cathedral.
As I roam the cobblestone streets, I'm worrying, hoping Muzeum Piernika will offer a more authentic experience. When I join the sold-out 1 p.m. tour, I get my answer. Two guides—costumed as “wiedźmy korzenne,” gingerbread witch and master of yore—toggle between Polish and English. There's going to be gimmickry and, I hope, at least a hint of substance.
The dressed-up docents parade around the room with pierniki's raw ingredients: a viscous, opaque honey, black peppercorns (the most important ingredient in pierniki, which translates more accurately to pepper bread), whole cloves, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon. A small boy is called on to grind the spices in a mortar and pestle. I'm summoned to the front to mix the ground spices into warm honey. Another woman sifts together wheat and rye flours. Two young siblings mix the flours into the infused honey until shaggy, toffee-hued dough forms.
At this stage, the master announces the dough needs to be aged in an oak barrel for 12 weeks. I've heard of aging cookie dough, but never for three months. I have questions. But when I approach a guide during a break in the tour, he begs off, citing another tour in just a few minutes. Another does the same.
I'm at the point of wondering whether there's anything genuine at the heart of all this retail pageantry. That's when I sneak a piece of raw dough. (The audience swears an “oath” not to taste it, for health-safety reasons.) Big notes of black pepper hit me. The pepper's punch, along with ground ginger, creates a pleasant tingling on my tongue. Raw, the honey-rich dough is a bit gummy. But when I try a piece that's baked up, it's pleasingly dense and intensely spiced.
Frustrated but intrigued, I return to Warsaw—which had so far offered me an abundance of communicative cooks, eager to share their knowledge of Polish cuisine. Back here, amid the city's high rises and Stalinist architecture, I discover a gingerbread gem.
Galeria Tebe is tucked away in the courtyard of a downtown office complex. The low-slung shop has a few chairs and tables on the patio, where customers (there were no others on my visit) can enjoy espresso in a pierniki cup with a crisp pierniki spoon that softens as you stir. Inside, two countertops are covered with ornately decorated pierniki ornaments. But there's no royal icing on these. It's all about the spices. Carefully placed allspice berries, cardamom pods, coffee beans, pumpkin seeds and more make the most charming Christmas cookies I have ever seen. I immediately buy my mother an ornament—as well as three bags of simply decorated cookies (nuts, dollops of chocolate and jam) to take home.
I order an espresso, plunk down outside and tear into a bag. These tawny cookies are lighter in color than the chestnut gingerbread men I'm used to. One bite conveys why: Like the cookies hanging on the wall inside Tebe, it's all about the spices. With no molasses to muffle them, cardamom, ginger and black pepper sing through these toothsome cookies. It was then I knew there was definitely something worthwhile to this lighter, brighter gingerbread.
Tebe's owners are out that day, but I reach Jacek and Teresa Bilscy by email. They explain that traditional pierniki contained up to 40 percent honey, making the dough extremely durable. And because the cost of the spices in gingerbread was so prohibitive, it was rare as well as extremely valuable. As a result, it would sit around a while. “It was ripening in basements for years,” the Bilscy said. “Parents were making it when their daughter was born, and they where baking it when the daughter was getting married.” This was not for eating, however. Intricately decorated pierniki—sometimes they were even guilded—were used as part of a woman's dowry, as diplomatic gifts, as a medium for molding cookie likenesses of kings and queens. But there was also a workaday pierniki, one distributed to soldiers during wartime, one baked by families at Christmas. It still relied on honey (for preservative qualities) and spices (for flavor), but it wasn't aged for years on end—just for weeks or a day—nor did it have the elaborate ornamentation of the pierniki that gives Toruń its reputation.
At Milk Street, we wanted to channel the more pragmatic Polish gingerbread—one that would be every bit as flavorful, without needing much more embellishment than drizzled icing or finishing sugar.
We drew from pierniki's high honey quotient, fresh spices and rye-flour backbone. For the spices, heaping doses of freshly ground black pepper and ground ginger took the lead, and we built on the cookies' intensity with a tablespoon of finely grated fresh ginger. We also took a page from touristic Toruń and bloomed the spices in warm honey and butter before mixing it together with equal parts rye and all-purpose flour. As modern-day pierniki bakers know, an audience doesn't like waiting around to enjoy their gingerbread. So instead of calling for days-long aging, we simply chilled the dough for a minimum of two hours (and a maximum of 12) so that it would spread nicely when baked. The result: wonderfully spicy, addictively chewy pierniki—no translation necessary.