Next to pierogi, Polish placek ranks high on the list of coveted Polish food favorites. Rolling out crusciki dough, with its intricate ingredients, for the first time or even attempting to fry them in bubbling lard is a mysterious and daunting task, I admit.
Pulling together the perfect pie crust or strudel dough initially drove me to my Gestalt therapist with a wish list of quick fixes begging for instant gratification. I needed to disentangle my insecurities from the task at hand and learn to relax, breathe and inhale the breadth of beauty before me – my heritage.
Perhaps this apprehension qualifies these seasonal treasures as desired, delectable and delicious. The Easter/springtime season heralds in these delicacies with propitious pomp, whether or not you are Polish, Catholic or even a supermarket retailer.
From my former employment experience as a pastry manager for Tops, I can assure you that store managers are strictly schooled to single out the best-selling ethnic products, such as paczki, and supply them to the purchasing public by the caseload. Never mind our expanding waistlines!
This is why, I feel, taking part in the personal creation of these tender gems remains a soulful ritual, one money can’t buy.
For many cherished years, I lived with my babcia. This tenure provided me with the wealth of her hands-on education and expertise. However, pastries played second stage to the theater of Sosia’s culinary masterpieces, such as slow-roasted picnic hams, kishka and coddled eggs with horseradish, czarnina with hand-rolled kluski noodles and sultz, a spiced, chilled gelatin loaf prepared from simmering pigs’ feet.
Allow me to note that according to one expert, a priest I currently cook for who traveled here from Rzeszow, Poland, czarnina is not prepared and appreciated there as it is in our Buffalo homesteads. Sweet and sour duck, raisin and prune soup has become the closet culinary champion on the menu of old-school Poles. Whether or not you add the frightening duck’s blood matters little nowadays. This rich and flavorful soup is synonymous to the kaleidoscope of traditions of Polish culture imbedded in our hearts.
It speaks of the Broadway Market (where my Dad was raised and worked) and of relatives who scrambled to make ends meet, impoverished pious meals such as fresh rye bread with caraway seeds smeared with bacon drippings along with a cup of piping Postum coffee, shared with neighbors who didn’t have two “grosz.”
I’ve uncovered many secrets to cooking “the Polish way” over the years. From my vocation as chef, having to prepare varied menus from diverse cultures such as Italian, Japanese, English and Indian, I nevertheless succumb to the whisperings of my Polish and German ancestors and ensure that these family heirlooms are documented, handed down and demonstrated to the offspring.
Even as I pen this confession, my grandchildren are baking pierniki and icing them according to a formula left by my late great- uncle, who established Fillmore Quality Bakery after the war.
“There is no bigger halo than a Polish halo direct from Polish heaven.” I can’t recall the source of that quote. Even so, it’s time to get your placek on. As Sosia used to repeat often while sitting you down to a plate of spareribs and sauerkraut, “Don’t be ashamed to eat.” Smacznego!