The Fresser

Finding the very Jewish flavour in Polish baking

There’s a haimishe feel to Ren Behan’s Sweet Polish Kitchen


Photo: Nassima Rothacker

There’s a reason many of the recipes in The Sweet Polish Kitchen feel familiar. Ren Behan’s second cookbook is a collection of bakes from her father’s home country. The eight chapters are packed with indulgent-looking Polish cakes, biscuits and breads.

Although author Ren isn’t Jewish, there’s a clear Ashkenazi flavour to several of her recipes.

Bakes that we think of as Jewish classic including babka, marble cake, baked cheesecakes and bagels all make an appearance. No surprise, when our baking traditions would have been inspired by and have, in turn, inspired those of our Polish neighbours.

An onion and poppy seed- topped roll is reminiscent of platzels I remember my parents picking up from our local deli on a Sunday morning. And although Ren’s recipe originated in Lublin, she notes it most likely had Jewish roots as there was a large Jewish community in that city.

And her potato pancakes —called placki in Polish are created from a mixture of potato blitzed with an eating apple until it forms a textured batter before being fried and served (as Ren’s grandmother did) with double cream and sugar.

Ren explains that living on limited means post-war meant her grandparents had to be creative in the kitchen with ingredients they could get hold of. Frequently (when conditions were tough) potatoes were all they had to eat. Something that resonated with the origins of many Ashkenazi dishes — also developedfrom the most meagre of staples.

That Ren’s grandma served her potato pancakes with cream and sugar goes some way to unpicking the mystery as to why we top our latkes with sour cream and apple sauce.

Ren also includes various types of babka. She explains that the yeasted babka we are most familiar with originated in Jewish Eastern European communities in the 19th century. Our Jewish babka was made from leftover challah dough filled with jam as a Shabbat breakfast option or to keep the children occupied pre-Shabbat

While the Polish also made yeasted babkas like this they also enjoyed a more cake-y style, baked in bundt tins. They were given the name ‘babka’ because of the shape of the bundt tin — high-sided and fluted with a hole in the middle. The resulting cake was said to resemble the skirt of a Polish grandma. In Polish, grandma translates to babcia (aka baba/babka) — just like our Yiddish bubbeh.

The Jewish version, for which Ren includes a delicious wild blueberry and almond recipe, was generally baked in a loaf shape. It’s not entirely clear therefore why that also took on the babka name. (My subsequent research on this did not provide any further enlightenment.)

The OG of Jewish/Polish breads has to be the bagel. Ren includes a twisted bagel-shaped roll that is a classic of Krakow known as an obwarzanek Krakowski. Jews are said to have invented the boil then bake method to circumvent rules prohibiting them from baking bread. This twisted style of bagel remains a classic treat in Krakow while the more simple circle went global with our forefathers travelling west to the UK, US and Canada.

Another very Ashkenazi flavour are the poppy seeds that are swirled through Ren’s baked seromakowiec (cheesecake) and the caraway seeds that are studded through a rye loaf — the perfect base for a salt beef sandwich.

My Polish ancestors would probably have recognised even more Ren’s flavours, which provided an insight into our shared history.

The Sweet Polish Kitchen: A celebration of home baking & nostalgic treats (Pavilion Books)

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