Want to learn more about Polish desserts? Author and food writer Ren Behan joins olive podcast host Janine to talk about her latest book The Sweet Polish Kitchen. They discuss staple Polish ingredients, why cheesecake is a Polish obsession and Ren explains why there’s a whole day devoted to doughnuts! Here, we pick out some highlights.


Listen to our interview with Ren on the olive podcast here:

The Polish pantry

You can find very similar ingredients in the Polish pantry to those that you would already have at home. Polish recipes might include cinnamon, honey, vanilla and poppy seeds. In baking, candied fruit is used a lot, as well as prunes.

Semolina is really popular, and obviously flour, and then dairy products. We use quite a lot of soured cream, and there's one particular type of cheese, twaróg, which is like a curd cheese and can be used in savoury or sweet dumpling fillings. It's widely available now in supermarkets, but if you can't find it, it's fine to use a supermarket own-brand soft cheese.

We use poppy seed paste a lot. When I do an alternative to a cinnamon bun, I use poppy seed paste with a soft cheese frosting for a modern twist. I also use the same poppy seed paste to swirl through a cheesecake, a sernik, or I might even use it to fill a pancake.

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Sweet buns with poppy seeds fresh from the oven.

Traditional Polish cheesecakes

There are about five traditional Polish cheesecake recipes. The first one is very basic, made without a base a bit like the Basque cheesecake, sometimes using raisins. The basic Polish sernik recipe is thought to have been brought to Poland through Viennese immigrants, as the Viennese-style cheesecake also has no base.

The Krakowski cheesecake, from Krakow, is slightly more decadent. It's got a pastry base, a pastry lattice topping and candied fruit, giving it a sort of royal appearance. It's more traditional to have the pastry base rather than the biscuit one you would find in a New York-style cheesecake. Although, sometimes a cheesecake base is made with tea biscuits, but instead of crushing them they are layered.

Another cheesecake has poppy seed paste swirled through it. There's also a chocolate crumble version as well as a sweet soft cheese filling sweetened with vanilla and sugar, which can also be used to fill pancakes and then bake them. That filling can also be used to fill pierogi, so there's lots of variations on the cheesecake theme.

Cheesecake with poppy seed filling

The history of the Polish babka

While the traditional Jewish babka is plaited, babka in Poland is traditionally baked in a bundt tin to represent the babcia's (grandmother's) skirt, with the shape of the fluted tin.

The babka wielkanocna is a popular one to have around the Easter table, but this type of bake is also eaten at other times of the year with different fillings, such as lemon and poppy seed or with rhubarb going through. You can also have the more traditional plaited ones that would be more commonly associated with a classic babka.

Try our chocolate, cherry and pistachio babka and easy bundt cake recipes.

Polish bundt cake with a rhubarb glaze and edible flowers on top

Celebratory Polish bakes

In Poland there are many celebratory occasions where a cake might appear on the table. At the Easter table you can often find the mazurek cake, which is really a tart with a lemon or chocolate filling. There are many varieties of Christmas cakes and biscuits, which are a bit more spiced with honey, cinnamon, vanilla, and perhaps a bit of ginger.

Layer cakes are also popular in Polish baking. There's a huge café culture in Poland that is thought to have been brought in by Swiss, French and Italian immigrants, so you can find those more elaborate layered cakes and filled patisserie like éclairs. One example is wuzetka, a chocolate sponge filled with cream, where the chocolate sponges are soaked in cherry vodka and then cherry jam.

Image of chocolate cream sponge from The Sweet Polish Kitchen book. IMAGE CREDIT NASSIMA ROTHACKER

Fat Thursday in Poland

While in the UK we mark Shrove Tuesday by eating pancakes, in Poland the last Thursday before Lent is known as Fat Thursday, or Doughnut Day. On this day you use up your ingredients before Lent and have your fill of sweet food. Whether it's Polish doughnuts, traditionally filled with rose petal jam, or a plum butter, or even a custard-filled doughnut.

Or we might eat angel wings, which are kind of pastry twists that actually exist in lots of different countries, not just Poland. Traditionally it's a day where you go out so there will be huge queues around the corners of the best bakeries in Warsaw and everywhere else. It's considered to be bad luck to eat just one, so you have to eat more than one.

Read more about Shrove Tuesday traditions from around the world and discover our favourite doughnut recipes.

Angel wings (faworki or chrust cakes in Poland) deep fried in oil to celebrate Fat Thursday. A traditional Polish delicacy before Lent.

For a savoury Polish recipe, try our stuffed cabbage leaves.


Header image credit: Nassima Rothacker


Ren BehanFood writer

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