Have you ever heard of Polish weddings? They are often big, last until morning, and are famous for the abundance of food. The food just keeps coming, but – in fervour of dancing, drinking and having fun – it usually gets somehow ignored, only to be realised on the following day, how much one has missed out by not eating.
The chocolate truffles I am introducing today are the must-have at every Polish wedding. And it’s not because they are exceptionally good (even though they are!), but because they are a by-product of the multiple bakes. Weddings in the countryside used to be held, very often, at the local community hall. The food used to be prepared on site, by a local cook, with the help of the bride herself and her family. As a kid, I used to love going round to help with wedding preparations, and I especially liked the baking. When I was 7 or 8 years old, nobody would give me any serious tasks, of course, but beating the egg whites or butter felt important enough back then. And as the weddings used to be quite big, with a minimum of a hundred people invited (and oftentimes more like 200), a lot of cakes had to be baked.
Customarily, the closest family would ‘donate’ fresh produce, which was then used for cooking and baking for the wedding reception. Some would bring eggs, some flour, others milk, cream or anything else they had in hand. Only the local family and friends, usually women, would participate in the big cooking and baking frenzy.
The big wedding bake off would start on Monday, and it was the ‘meeting’ and trying out the oven day. On this day, only yeast cakes would be made. Sweet, brioche-like cakes with fruit (plum for example) or sweet cottage cheese topping (filling like in these, in Poland called drożdżówki), raised with fresh yeast rather than with baking powder, are very popular in Poland. They are not celebratory cakes, but they are an excellent indicator of the quality of the oven (and cheaper than, say, trying the oven with a 30-egg sponge cake!). The cakes, after being baked, would be distributed among the women who turned up to help with baking for the wedding reception, as a form of reimbursement, and a nice treat. Some would be eaten on the spot, accompanied by coffee (or nalewka) and a round of local gossip. These yeast cakes are also a good indicator of the quality of the flour: if the flour is too wet, they won’t raise as good.
Tuesday to Thursday is when the proper baking takes place, and there is a particular order to keep. First, as my mum put it, dry cakes are baked: cakes without buttercream or any other vulnerable to time fillings. The baking would start, then, with all sorts of shortcrust pastries, biscuits, poppy seed cakes, walnut cakes, but also sponges which will later be used for creating multi-layered cakes. Ready baked cakes and pastries were then stored in a chilled room or fridge, but it was important to move them onto some cardboard, as leaving them in a baking tin would result in the cakes having a metallic smell and aftertaste.
Since I helped with baking for my uncles wedding, few years ago, I have not seen as many eggs being beaten (for ridiculously fluffy and light sponges), so many butters creamed for buttercream, and so much flour everywhere (both on the pastry boards and women’s aprons). But what amazed me, is that I have not seen a single scale being used, ever. I am pretty sure that these women (and especially the one in charge who has probably seen more weddings in her life than most of us) could easily bake with their eyes closed. I don’t think I have ever been more impressed, than then, seeing these women bake. Their sponges would rise all the way up to the sky, and they were light as a cloud.
With the ‘dry’ cakes baked, then came the time for cheesecakes. A cheesecake is an institution in Poland: it’s firm, it’s wet, it’s heavy. It’s nothing like the fluffy Japanese cheesecake or the light New York cheesecake. When you eat a Polish cheesecake, you know it’s been made with cheese. In Poland, the cheese used for cheesecakes is a curd cheese (white cottage cheese, in Poland called biały ser or twaróg), often homemade, which needs to be put through a mincer at least twice, (otherwise the cheesecake will be grainy, and that’s a big no). The cheesecake will contain: egg yolks (crazy amounts, as well, starting with 7, with some cheesecakes using as many as 15!), sugar, butter, sometimes milk or/and vanilla extract. It takes two hours in the oven to bake a good Polish cheesecake, and I can tell you this – if you’ve never tried, put it on your bucket list right now. Polish cheesecake is something to know the taste of, for sure.
After the cheesecakes comes the rest: little shortcrust ‘cupcakes’ decorated with cream (babeczki), walnut-shaped and flavoured biscuits, and the buttercream for the cakes. I am not sure if I can paint the picture of the variety of cakes presented to the average Polish wedding guest: all the cakes are cut into little squares, arranged on a plate or a cake stand, and placed on the tables, humbly waiting for the guests to try them. The cakes come in all shapes, colours and flavours: caramel, vanilla, coffee, poppy seed, apple, walnut, coconut, chocolate. The variety is overwhelming, and, as most guests are after the savoury treats that go better with vodka than cakes, they are hugely left out of the picture, sadly sitting on the tables, eaten only occasionally by some bored kids, who’ve had enough of dancing. But they don’t go to waste, the cakes. Polish hospitality found a way around it, too: every guest, when leaving the wedding reception, is given a small box packed with the wedding cakes cut in small squares, which can be enjoyed on the following day, when the alcohol evaporates and the tiredness of dancing all night wears off.
You are probably wondering by now, what does it all have to do with ziemniaczki? These chocolate truffles, in Polish called ziemniaczki, are made with…other cakes. Leftovers, to tell the truth. You see, every finished cake cannot be just cut into squares and served as it is: the uneven edges and sides need to be cut off first. Imagine you made a nice cake: carefully arranged it, layer after layer in the baking tin. It doesn’t look very pretty upon release from the tin, does it? Some of the buttercream has probably run down the sides, the chocolate ganache dripped, or a chunk of sponge fell off while taking the cake out of the tin. And since in Poland there was no custom of decorating the cake all the way around, like a wedding-cake or a birthday-cake (especially that most of the Polish layered cakes are relatively low and square, rather than round), the sides needed to be trimmed, about 1cm off of each side of a rectangle cake. Imagine the waste! 4 cake-length slices of 50 or so cakes!
Not surprisingly, an idea was born out of the Polish thriftiness: how about we re-use all the cut-off pieces of cakes and make them into something new? That’s how the no-waste chocolate truffle or ziemniaczek was created. The cake cut-offs were put into a bowl, with some dark cocoa powder, jam for the zing, maybe raisins or walnuts for the crunch, and vodka – for the extra flavour. The resulting ‘batter’ would be rolled into small balls, covered in desiccated coconut, left in the fridge overnight and voila! – chocolate truffles with no cost, the last (but not least) non-baked bake of the wedding bake off.
The times have changed though. Not many people nowadays decide to hold their wedding reception at the community hall, not to mention that hardly anyone bakes and cooks their own wedding reception feasts. Recently, most people either rent a purpose-built wedding hall for their big day, or hire a catering company. It saves the work and stress for everyone involved in the wedding planning, but on a flip-side – it spares the fun! I was only a girl when I attended these ‘bake offs’, but I remember them vividly: all the women, working in unison since early morning, whisking, beating, chopping, cutting, but also eating, gossiping, drinking, even singing sometimes. And although this custom is now almost gone, there are still some witnesses of the past, ziemniaczki being one of them.
NO-WASTE TRUFFLES OR ZIEMNIACZKI
250g of any leftover cake, biscuits, cookies (I used leftover sponge cake, crushed ginger biscuits and crushed gingerbread biscuits)
50g crushed walnuts
50g raisins (soaked in hot water for a few minutes)
25g ground almonds (or desiccated coconut)
1tsp almond extract
1-2tbsp of jam (I used blackberry)
50g melted butter
3tbsp icing sugar (adjust to your liking, but not much more than that)
3tbsp cocoa powder
desiccated coconut or hundreds&thousands to cover the truffles in
How to make?
1. Add all the ingredients to a bowl.
2. I don’t recommend using an electric mixer to work the batter, go in with your hands. We want to achieve a fairly smooth, but still chunky consistency. Add more cocoa powder if the mixture is not dark enough, more almonds or crushed biscuits if it’s too wet and more butter or a tablespoon of milk, if it’s too dry.
3. Take a small amount of the mixture and roll it in your hands, until you get a nicely shaped ball.
4. Cover the ball in desiccated coconut or in the hundreds&thousands (or whatever else you use to decorate them, crushed walnuts work well, too). Best way to do it, is to take a shallow bowl, fill it with the desiccated coconut and throw ready-rolled truffles in it. When you have a few in a bowl, move them around, until they are evenly covered in desiccated coconut and transfer them to a wire rack or a plate.
5. I recommend leaving the truffles in the fridge overnight, to let them set properly. Also, leaving them for 12 hours or so will let all the flavours mix beautifully; so when you finally eat the truffles, you will get this completely unexpected, strong flavour of all the flavours combined. They are powerful balls, I am telling you!
All done. Time to sit back and relax now. Oh, how I wish I had one of those truffles with me now (I have some frozen, should I?).
Anyway, hope you enjoyed the read!