When I first moved to Canada in 2000, I landed smack bang in the middle of “little Poland” in the Roncesvalles area of Toronto near High Park. Back then, every second store along Roncesvalles seemed to be a mom and pop Polish store, restaurant or bar. It was not a culture or cuisine I was very familiar with at that point in my life. I had visited Poland in 1991 (!) as part of a three-month backpacking trip around Europe but I cannot remember any of the food I ate there (it definitely wasn’t a highlight for a twentysomething backpacker….). My first taste of real Polish food was here in Canada and, to this day, there are a handful of wonderful little Polish places that have survived the gentrification of the neighbourhood and remain “go to” restaurants in the ‘hood for reasonably priced, not fancy but wholesome food (not to mention the fun to be had trying to order Polish beer in Polish – I swear the poor servers must get sick of people like me determined to “get it right” when I order my drinks!).
Just last week a group of friends and I headed out for a mid-week meal at Cafe Polonez (a fave) where we indulged in a “tasting platter” involving (for each person): pork schnitzel topped with fried mushrooms served with a side of hunters stew, 4 cheddar and potato pierogi and a Polish salad selection (pickled beets, coleslaw and carrots). It was, to say the least, very filling. Delicious but also a little heavy – I ate half of my platter and that was more than enough. Most definitely the traditional type of food that many associate with Polish cuisine.
But… did you know that Polish cuisine has been quietly evolving over the past decade? This is the focus of Ren Behan’s debut cookbook, Wild Honey and Rye: Modern Polish Cuisine, written following a trip to Poland in 2015 where British-born but Polish raised Ren suddenly noticed that Poland, and in particular the food scene had changed dramatically since her last visit. This collection of recipes honours Poland’s past whilst celebrating its present and future and will completely change the way you look at Polish food.
In this refreshing approach to Polish cuisine, food writer and blogger Ren Behan takes us on a journey to discover the new tastes of her beloved culinary heritage. The food of eastern Europe, long misunderstood in the West, is changing – the focus is swinging away from heavy dumplings and stews towards lighter, healthier, fresh and seasonal recipes, served in contemporary ways. In this beautiful collection of recipes, Ren brings us the very best of the Polish kitchen, inspired both by the food of her childhood and by the new wave of flavours to be found in the trendy restaurants, cafes and farmers markets of modern Poland.
Ren has set out to breathe fresh life into people’s perceptions of her culinary heritage, making it accessible for everyone. Most of the ingredients are seasonal and easily sourced at a local supermarket; a few will need to be sourced at a Polish deli. Ren’s included a fabulous section at the start to help you stock your pantry with key ingredients from a Polish kitchen (including giving Polish names of pantry basics – I need this on me when I shop in my local Polish stores!) to set you up for success with the recipes in the book.
There are seven chapters: Sweet and Savoury Breakfasts, Seasonal and Raw Salads, Seasonal Soups and market-Inspired Sides, Light Bites and Street Food, Food for Family and Friends, High Tea and Fruit Liqueurs and Flavoured Vodkas. The gorgeous food photography by Yuki Sugiura is complemented by Ren’s own images of the “new Poland” which is definitely not the Poland I remember from January 1991!
The book has a clean, light feel about it – the inviting, uncomplicated photos make the recipes seem very accessible and draw you in to read more. At first glance, I’m not sure you would think this is a Polish cookbook, however on closer inspection, all the recipes you might expect are there, just with unexpected twists – pierogi (but with things like duck and apple filling or even a dessert version with strawberries, honey and pistachio), an Italian take on bigos (hunters’ stew) as a nod to Ren’s sister who lives in Italy and finds it hard to source Polish ingredients, potato salad with poppyseeds and chives, red cabbage with caraway seeds or even white cabbage with bacon (Ren’s attempt to show us what a great, inexpensive vehicle for flavour cabbage is!) – all the traditional ingredients and dishes you might expect in a Polish cookbook, with a fresh, modern twist. On top of the recipes, Ren’s memories and stories are a delightful read on their own; her enthusiasm is infectious and I challenge you to read the book and NOT mark at least a dozen recipes you want to try (on my list for as soon as I’ve got my own manuscript off my desk? Pierogi. Because if Ren can’t teach me, noone can!).
I chose to bake the Honey and Rye Loaf from the book because, well, the book is named for these ingredients so I couldn’t go past it. It’s also a (relatively) quick bread – just requires a 2 hour rise and a fairly quick (hand) knead.
I found this easy enough to make although I needed to add a little extra liquid at the kneading stage (our house is so dry in the winter) and wondered if I might be better off kneading with my stand mixer next time, it was quite hard to knead as it’s a denser loaf because of the rye flour. This is a wonderful bread fresh from the oven and the next day, it’s great toasted. I sliced the fresh loaf and popped the slices in a ziplock bag to toast from frozen through the week too 🙂 Want to make this for yourself? Ren’s publisher has been kind enough to let me republish the recipe.
Honey and Rye Loaf
Ren says: I have to confess that I am not a regular baker of bread, though it is a skill I would love to incorporate into daily life. I particularly like sourdough breads and most Polish bread begins with a zakwas, or sourdough starter. This simple honey and rye loaf, however, is for times when I just want to use store-cupboard ingredients. It is particularly good with butter, twaróg (Polish soft cheese) or cream cheese and honey, but it is equally good when served with eggs, and it can be toasted. I like to use a mixture of rye and white bread flour, and I also add a sprinkle of caraway seeds, as is traditional in Polish baking; the caraway seeds are optional.
125ml/4fl oz/½ cup lukewarm water
125ml/4fl oz/½ cup lukewarm whole milk
2 tbsp runny honey
7g (one packet) fast-action yeast
250g/9oz/2½ cups rye flour – or use wholemeal or spelt flour – plus extra for dusting
250g/9oz/2 cups strong white bread flour
½ tsp salt
2 tsp caraway seeds (optional)
1 tsp vegetable oil, for greasing
Mix the water and milk together, add the honey and stir until dissolved. Tip in the yeast, whisk and leave to stand in a warm place for 10 minutes.
Put the flours and salt, and caraway seeds if using, into a large bowl. Make a well in the centre and stir in the liquid yeast mixture until the dough comes together.
Dust a work surface with rye flour. Tip the dough onto the surface and knead it for 10 minutes. Shape the dough into a ball.
Grease a clean bowl with oil and put the dough into the bowl. Cover with clingfilm (plastic wrap) and leave in a warm place until the dough has roughly doubled in size. This may take up to 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas Mark 6.
Tip the dough out onto the work surface, knead it briefly, then shape into an oval loaf and place on a large oiled baking sheet. Slash the top with a sharp knife and bake for 45 minutes or until it is golden brown all over.
Leave the loaf on a wire rack to cool before slicing.
Excerpted with permission from Wild Honey & Rye Modern Polish Recipes (Pavilion Books, 2017)
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Disclosure: I purchased Wild Honey and Rye for myself. I was not asked to write about this book, nor am I being compensated to do so. Ren is also a friend but I only write about and endorse books and products I truly love. I’m so proud to call Ren my friend 🙂