Piernik Staropolski: Polish Gingerbread Cake

Piernik Staropolski

Piernik Staropolski (Old-Polish Gingerbread Cake, pronon. ‘Pierre-nick’) is a classic dessert based on honey. Three layers of spicy, fragrant cake are interspersed with two layers of filling: damson plum jam and slightly boozy walnut cream. 

This cake develops its flavour slowly, maturing for nearly 6 weeks. To be ready in time for Christmas, we need to start making it in the first week of November.

For the full list of ingredients & detailed instructions, please see the recipe card at the end of this post. But before you scroll, there’s important stuff to know below.

A name of this type of cake (‘Piernik’) comes from an Old-Polish word ‘pierny’ which means ‘peppery’ (source: Museum of Gingerbread in Toruń).

And while we commonly translate it to English as “gingerbread”, ground ginger is not a key part of this recipe. The real star ingredient is honey. There would be no Piernik without it. 

I baked this Polish Gingerbread Cake using a recipe from a book by Maria Lemnis and Henryk Vitry called “W Staropolskiej Kuchni i Przy Polskim Stole” (1979, “Old Polish Traditions in the Kitchen and at the Table”). I tweaked the recipe slightly to make it more accessible, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

If you would like to try more Polish desserts, try one of my favourites:

Do you need any special ingredients to make this Polish Gingerbread Cake?

In general, no. All the ingredients should be available in most large supermarkets. Just a few general notes:

  • Make sure to purchase real honey of high quality, from a trusted source.
  • When selecting a gingerbread spice mix, read the label. Avoid spice mixes containing sugar, flour or cocoa powder. All we want is cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, star anise, cloves, cardamom and black pepper. 
  • In terms of equipment, a stand mixer will come handy. You can knead the dough by hand, but that requires some strength.
    For this recipe, I use three large baking pans (sized at 10x16in – 26x40cm), but you can use just a single one and then repeat the baking process three times. If your baking pan is round or of a different size, that’s okay too. 

What should you serve with this Piernik?

A cake like this one is usually served around Christmas time. You’ll see it on a festive table, alongside Makowiec (Poppyseed Roll) and Sernik (Polish Cheesecake)

This Gingerbread can be enjoyed with a cup of warm beverage, such as tea or coffee. A glass of heavy, sweet red wine makes a fine pairing as well.

Can you bake this Gingerbread Cake another way?

Not really, that’s a traditional way of baking it. But I’ve seen recipes promising similar results without waiting for piernik to mature – I haven’t tried them yet, therefore I cannot make a recommendation just yet. Watch this space!

If you’re avoiding alcohol, you can swap it for cold tea or apple juice.

What diets are this Piernik suitable for?

This Gingerbread Cake is suitable for vegetarians.

How long can you keep this Polish Gingerbread Cake in the fridge?

If you live in a cooler climate, there’s no need to refrigerate this Piernik. A cool place will do just fine. 

Around Christmas time, I tend to store certain foods on my balcony to save some precious refrigeration space. It’s roughly -5 to 10°C (23-50°F) outside and nothing ever goes off. 

In a hot climate, store Piernik in the fridge. It will be fine to eat for up to 2 weeks, maybe even longer.

Can I freeze this Piernik?

Yes, this Polish gingerbread cake freezes well. Just wrap it in foil and label it with a date. Piernik can be stored for up to 3 months (although I ate a much older one and survived the experience). Thaw in the refrigerator overnight.

Traditional Polish Gingerbread Cake for Christmas
Piernik Startopolski - Polish Gingerbread Cake

Piernik Staropolski: Polish Gingerbread Cake (Matured Christmas Cake)

Yield: 30
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Additional Time: 1 month 18 days 14 hours
Total Time: 1 month 18 days 15 hours 15 minutes

This Christmassy Polish-style Gingerbread Cake features heady notes from the allspice, clove, nutmeg and cinnamon; and depth of sweetness from honey. A Festive classic!

Ingredients

Phase 1: 6 weeks before Christmas Eve (roughly on Nov 6th)

  • 1.5 cups (350 ml, 500 g) real honey; spruce honeydew honey is my favourite.
  • 2 cups (360 g) brown sugar
  • 2 sticks (230-250 g) butter
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3 teaspoons baking soda
  • 0.5 cup (120 ml) cold milk
  • 8 cups (1 kg) all purpose flour
  • 0.5 teaspoon salt
  • 3-4 tablespoons (45-60 g) gingerbread spice, can be substituted with pumpkin pie spice.

Phase 2: 4 days before Christmas Eve: Walnut Cream & Assembly

  • 10.5 oz (300 g) walnuts, ground
  • 2 sticks (230-250 g) butter
  • 1 cup (200 g) sugar
  • 3 tablespoons whipping cream, 30%
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • 2 tbsp alcohol (vodka, rum)
  • 10-12 oz (280-340 g) damson jam

Phase 3: 1 day before Christmas Eve - Chocolate Glazing

  • ½ cup (115 g) sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 stick (115 g) butter
  • 3 tablespoons cocoa powder, 100% with no sugar added

Optional decoration

  • A handful of chopped dried fruit, chopped / ground nuts or cake sprinkles

Instructions

Phase 1: 6 weeks before Christmas Eve (roughly on Nov 6th)

  1. Prepare a 2 qt/2 litre cooking pot. Pour in the honey, add sugar and butter. Put on a really low heat and gradually bring to a near-boil, stirring continuously. Set aside to cool completely. [important!]
  2. In a small glass, stir baking soda together with milk, let it dissolve. Then, add it into the sugary mass.
  3. Add in the eggs and stir them in. Add half a teaspoon of salt.
  4. Add flour into the sugary mass gradually, kneading by hand or using a stand mixer (dough hook works well). The dough is dense and heavy, so make sure your equipment can take it.
  5. When the dough is well kneaded, form a dough ball and place it into a bowl (stoneware bowls are great for this, but any container will do). Initially the dough can feel a bit loose, but with time it will become denser as it matures.
  6. Cover with a linen cloth and leave in a cool place. If you live in a warm climate, you can store it on the lower shelves of the fridge.


Phase 2: 4 days before Christmas Eve: Walnut Cream & Assembly

  1. Divide the dough into 3 equal parts. Roll each part with a rolling pin - I do it directly on a piece of parchment paper, so I can transfer it easily into a baking pan later on. Aim for a thickness of roughly 0.4 inch (1 cm). If the dough is too sticky, sprinkle some flour on your worktop to ease the process. 
  2. Preheat the oven to 360°F (180°C). Prepare 3 large baking pans. Mine are rectangular, 10x16in (26x40cm), but you can choose a different shape or make more layers. If you don’t have so many equally sized baking pans, just use the one you’ve got and repeat the baking process 3 times.
  3. Place rolled out dough into the baking pans, place in the oven and immediately reduce the heat to 300°F (150°C). Bake for 15-20 minutes.
  4. While waiting for the gingerbread layers to cool, let’s start making the nutty filling. If you have whole walnuts, grind them now. 
  5. Drop sugar, butter and cream into a cooking pot, mix with a spoon and bring to a boil. Add ground nuts and blend them into the mass.
  6. Set aside to cool, then transfer into the fridge. Once cold, whip the walnut cream with a hand mixer, gradually adding the juice of half a lemon and 2 tablespoons of alcohol.
  7. Grab one baked gingerbread layer. Spread a generous amount of damson jam on top and cover with another cake layer. Spread the walnut cream and cover with a final piece of gingerbread.
  8. Wrap the whole cake with an aluminum foil. Store in a cool place (or alternatively - on the lower shelves of the fridge) for 3 days.


Phase 3: 1 day before Christmas Eve - Chocolate Glazing

  1. Place half a cup of sugar, 2 tablespoons of water, one stick of butter and 3 tablespoons of cocoa powder into a small saucepan. Cook on a low heat for 5-7 minutes. Leave to cool, until the mass thickens. 
  2. Unwrap the gingerbread cake. Cover it with chocolate glazing. There is no right way to do it - I just pour it over and spread with a spoon. 
  3. Sprinkle with a topping of your choice.

Notes

  1. The original recipe uses regular white sugar, I swapped it for brown sugar - because hey, it’s more gingerbread-like. I’ve also increased the butter content slightly.
  2. As gingerbread spice, I mean a mix of: cinnamon, nutmeg, star anise, cloves, cardamom, ginger and black pepper.  Avoid spice mixes containing sugar, flour or cocoa powder.

Nutrition Information:
Yield: 30 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 208Total Fat: 3gSaturated Fat: 1gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 1gCholesterol: 22mgSodium: 199mgCarbohydrates: 41gFiber: 2gSugar: 12gProtein: 5g

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Cuisine: Polish
Region / Subregion: all-Polish
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