Ethnic food is flourishing in uptown Mt. Lebanon. It wasn’t always that way, but tastes change and now there is tremendous interest in all things food. We can dine at Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Thai and Middle Eastern restaurants. But no Polish restaurant.
Polish food? You might think only of pierogi, those tasty fillings wrapped in dough. If so, you’ve probably missed out on a most satisfying gustatory experience.
Just ask Wanda Pendzich or her daughter Michalina, both of Mt. Lebanon, both experts on Polish cuisine. How they, plus their many relatives, became so is a heart-warming story. And it all starts with a cookbook, “Jak Gotowac” (“How to Cook”) which is the family’s Polish food touchstone.
Written by Maria Disslowa in 1931 and only available in Polish, the book has hundreds of recipes. But it is far more than just cookery. It offers advice on household skills from choosing pots to setting tables, an adjunct to the training on household management girls usually got from their mothers. “Your first university is at home. Your second is when you get a diploma,” says Wanda, who emigrated from Poland after World War II.
At a time of life when young girls usually got their housekeeping training, Wanda and other members of her family were forcibly relocated in 1940 to a labor camp well inside Russia. From there, the odyssey continued for seven years and to several countries until she reached Chicago. “America is my tenth country,” Wanda says.
In 1954, married with two of her eventual six children, a brother managed to find her a copy of the book in Europe. It became an indispensable part of her life because it had the information she never got.
“She very much relied on this as a connection to the traditions of her youth,” recalls Michalina. “I don’t think she had any other cookbooks.”
“I had it wrapped in special brown bag so light didn’t hurt it. It was my cooking bible,” Wanda recalls, eyes twinkling.
The children where there when she cooked, although not necessarily helping. “I remember playing with pieces of dough she gave us as she rolled out the rest,” says Michalina. “The dough was like toys,” chimes in Wanda.
Wanda’s three daughters who live in America have copies of their mother’s book, while the fourth daughter, who lives in Poland, enjoys the tradition all around her. Wanda’s granddaughters also have a deep connection to the genre. “This past Christmas there was an extended email exchange regarding the holiday menu,” recalls Michalina. “The younger generation insisted on more traditional dishes.”
“Polish food is not just peasant food. There’s aspic, lobster in cream à la Polonaise,” says Michalina who uses the book when she wants something different. Different, at least from our American palate, is the operative word. Think multiple recipes for borscht: spring and meatless borscht, Christmas Eve borscht, borscht for the sick.
Given those parameters, what exactly is Polish cuisine? Wanda’s descendants were ready with answers when Michalina canvassed them.
“Seasonal soups,” says daughter Elizabeth. “Sorrel for spring, cold borscht for summer, mushroom for fall and winter. Raw vegetable salads (surowki) are favorites. There’s a love of fruit— cold fruit soup, pork or chicken with prunes, cakes with fruit.”
Granddaughter Emma includes marjoram and dill as herbs distinguishing the cuisine. She adds: “Nothing overly sweet.” Michalina’s cake recipe fits that description deliciously.
Daughter Christine emphasizes the prominence of fruits and vegetables, especially those “that grow well in Polish territory: rye, sorrel, beets, potatoes, cabbage, mushrooms, poppy seeds are right at the center.” She adds bigos, a complex stew, to the repertoire.
The recipes the Pendzich family shared, so much a traditional part of family life, are excellent starting points for exploring Polish food. Enjoy them both!
Grated Carrot and Parsnip Salad
courtesy Michalina and Wanda Pendzich
Note from Michalina: “This recipe does not appear in the Disslowa cookbook, but in the section on salads, the author writes that almost any vegetable can be used. The recipe here is in that spirit and after consultation with my niece who has spent much time in Poland recently.”
salt, pepper, sugar
Grate washed and peeled carrots and parsnips. Core and peel apple; grate and sprinkle with lemon juice. Mix grated carrots, parsnips and apple. Season to taste with salt, pepper and sugar.
You can also add finely chopped nuts or parsley. The salad can be dressed with mayonnaise, olive oil or yogurt. Or some combination of these. Experiment to find the taste that suits you.
Polish Cake with Fresh Fruit
courtesy Michalina and Wanda Pendzich
Notes from Michalina: Disslowa (the author of the book mentioned in the article) makes this cake using yeast, but it’s been updated for the modern baker. It’s a cake that can be made with almost any fruit. Most commonly Poles use apples or prune plums (the dark small oval shaped ones). But it can be made with any plum, peaches, nectarines, cherries or blueberries.
4 large eggs
2 cups flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoons vanilla
2 teaspoons. baking powder
2 sticks unsalted butter
Fruit of your choice, pitted and cut in half or sliced; does not have to be peeled; larger pieces of fruit such as apples or nectarines should be sliced. You need enough to cover the top of the cake batter in a 13×9” cake pan, so it depends on the size of the fruit.
Heat oven to 350°
- Separate egg yolks from whites
- Beat the egg whites until stiff with a pinch of salt
- Beat the butter with the sugar in the bowl of your mixer
- Add the yolks one at a time beating after each addition
- Add 1 tsp vanilla; mix
- In a separate bowl mix the flour with the baking powder
- Add the flour mixture alternately with the beaten egg whites to the butter and sugar, mixing after each addition
- Pour the cake into a greased 13×9 baking pan. Spread evenly. Arrange the fruit on top in even rows with the skin side down.
Bake for 45 to 60 minutes. After cooling, you can sprinkle with powdered sugar.
Smacznego! (This means bon appétit.)