Maciek Kolodziejczak of Venice has provided The Times with an unusual Christmas cookie recipe along with warm memories of the holiday from his native Poland.
What inspired this sharing was the recent visit of his aunt, Danka Siemiatkowska. It was she who baked the spicy pierniki that brightened Kolodziejczak's childhood. The recipe goes back so many generations "that we can't even trace it," he said.
The pierniki are dark brown cookies that boast an extraordinary assortment of spices, including pepper and curry powder. Coffee, cocoa, hazelnuts and rum add still more flavor, and to absorb these seasonings, the dough is allowed to stand for days before it is shaped into cookies and baked.
Kolodziejczak, who is from Gdynia, recalls this part of the procedure well. "My aunt would usually make the dough mid-November and hide it in a cool place," he said. "My cousins and I made it our task to try to find the dough and eat it, since after the first Sunday of Advent, we began the abstinence from cookies and sweets. That was also one of the reasons we looked forward to the baking and decorating, because it was one of the few times before Christmas Eve that we got to eat something sweet."
In December, family members gathered to shape and decorate the cookies. The decorations included nuts, dates, figs and chocolate, "delicacies not taken for granted in Poland. It was one of the few times a year we got to eat them," Kolodziejczak said.
Only a portion of Aunt Danka's dough ever achieved cookiehood. "On the actual baking and decorating days, my aunt said that sometimes we ate more dough than we baked, and more frosting ended up on our faces, hands and in our hair than on the pierniki, " he said.
In 1962, at the age of 8, Kolodziejczak left Poland with his mother, Barbara. His father, Gustav, who is now deceased, had escaped in 1957 and settled in Chicago. Today, Kolodziejczak is a career counselor at the UCLA Placement and Career Planning Center. Barbara Kol, who uses a shortened form of the surname, lives in Newport Beach, and Danka Siemiatkowska has settled in Sundsval, Sweden.
Throughout the years, Kolodziejczak and his family continued to make pierniki, following Aunt Danka's hard-to-read, handwritten notes. Her visit to California included a cookie-making session that enabled them to correct the recipe. "Hers were better than ours, I always felt," Kolodziejczak said.
AUNT DANKA'S PIERNIKI
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon curry powder
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
8 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 1/2 cups honey
1 pound unsalted butter
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup hot strong coffee
1 teaspoon vanilla
6 egg yolks, at room temperature
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ammonium carbonate
1/4 cup finely ground hazelnuts
2 tablespoons dark rum
Powdered Sugar Frosting
Decorations: raisins, currants, cut dates, dried figs, candied fruit, walnuts, halved hazelnuts, blanched, halved or sliced almonds, pecans, mini chocolate pieces
Use rounded spoon measures on all spices. Combine cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, pepper, curry powder, allspice and cocoa powder. Place flour in large, deep bowl. Sift in spice mixture, add lemon zest and stir to mix. Combine honey, butter and sugar in saucepan and heat until boiling. Add hot mixture, coffee and vanilla to bowl and stir vigorously with large wooden spoon to scald all flour.
As dough cools, knead to mix thoroughly. When dough is room temperature, add egg yolks, baking powder, ammonium carbonate, hazelnuts and rum. Knead to blend thoroughly. Place dough in bowl, cover and let stand in cool place or refrigerate for several days to blend flavors.
When ready to bake, work with about 1 cup dough at time. Roll out on lightly floured board until 1/8 inch thick. Cut into desired shapes with cookie cutters or make original designs. Place on ungreased baking sheets and bake at 350 degrees until browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Cool on racks.
Decorate as desired with frosting and selected toppings. Makes about 18 dozen, depending upon size.
Note: Ammonium carbonate is available at German and Scandinavian markets.
Powdered Sugar Frosting
4 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 (1-pound) box powdered sugar
Blend egg whites and vanilla with powdered sugar, stirring vigorously until thoroughly blended. If mixture is too thin for icing, add little additional powdered sugar.
Note: Although recipes call for uncooked eggs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has found them to be a potential carrier of food-borne illness and recommends that diners avoid eating raw eggs. Commercial egg substitutes may be used in place of raw eggs in certain circumstances. Check egg substitute package for applications.