What is pryanik?
The word pryanik is used to describe a collective of traditional, sweet, baked Russian treats. This classical recipe was originally made with flour and honey. Nowadays the honey is often replaced with sugar when made both industrially and in home baking.
Pryanik is often referred to as gingerbread cake because of all the modernized variations, however traditionally, ginger was not used at all. Today, pryanik purists do not add ginger to the dough, instead, relying on spices such as black pepper, cumin, cloves, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and star anise for flavor.
What is the origin of pryanik?
Originally dating back to the 4th century BC, pryanik first became popular in Russian cuisine in the 9th Century AD. To begin with, it was made with honey, rye flour and the juices of berries. Because honey made up the greater proportion of the dough, it was simply known as honey bread.
Spices were later added during the 12th to 13th century when Russia opened up trade routes with the Middle East and India. These spices brought the recipe closer to the gingerbread recipe that is enjoyed across Western Europe today.
How did it get its name?
In the 9th century when pryanik was first made, it was known as medovyy khleb (медовый хлеб) literally meaning, “honey bread”. It was during the 17th century that the name was changed to pryanik (пряник), which is derived from pryanost’ (пряность), the Russian word for spices.
When baking smaller pryanik cookies, the plural, pryaniki (пряники) is used because the singular, pryanik (пряник), is the word for the larger loaf or cake.
Pryanik in Russian culture
Pryanik has found its way into numerous proverbs and sayings in Russian culture, many of which are still used today. It’s used in phrases of wisdom such as, “You can’t buy pryanik without working”, and other classic sayings.
For example, in English they would say, “It’s like music to my ears”, whereas in Russia they say, “It’s like having pryanik in your ear.”
Another favorite English phrase is, “Give yourself a pat on the back” (which means, “Well done!”), while in Russia the equivalent is, “Buy yourself pryanik.”
Why is honey so popular Russia?
Honey plays a significant role across many aspects of everyday life in Russia. Originating from Bashkirian ancestry, honey has now become a prevalent staple across many national dishes in Russia and Bashkortostan (previously known as Bashkiria). And it is from Bashkortostan that the famous Bashkir honey is produced.
Honey is found in hundreds of sweet recipes across Russia, and in ancient times, it was also an ingredient in medovukha, a mildly alcoholic beverage made from berry juice, hops and honey.
Honey isn’t just used as an ingredient in cooking. Med is the Slavic word for honey, and it’s no coincidence therefore that it’s long been favored for its medicinal and healing properties. Honey is seen as cure-all throughout Russia and other Slav nations. It’s used to combat many common illnesses, such as colds and ‘flu. The curative power of honey often extends further, across more complex ailments.
Not only does it boost the immune system, because of its antibacterial enzymes, but it can also be used to heal cuts and sores. Honey is also said to act as nature’s anti-depressant. Furthermore, studies have shown that people who consume honey on a regular basis tend to have longer life spans.
Said to be one of the most expensive varieties of honey in the world, Bashkir honey costs in excess of $200 per kilogram (2.2 lbs). Bashkir honey is made from wild-hive European Black Bees, also known as Burzyan bees (Apis mellifera mellifera), whose natural hives are often found in the Kapova cave, in the Burzyansky District of Bashkortostan. Hives are also found in tree hollows in Starosubkhangulovo and Irgiz.
These bees are acclimated to thrive and survive in bleak cold temperatures at altitude. The bees produce different enzymes to their regular counterparts, enzymes which are then passed into the honey. Bashkir honey is only collected once a year, from caves and tree hollows. This is done when the hive is dormant during the winter.
Known for its distinctive taste, this honey is something of a treasure for the nomadic Bashkirs, and is always served at tea parties. Along with other tea time favorites, yywasa, qistibi and smetana, Bashkir honey forms part of the national cuisine of Bashkortostan. Often referred to as “Bashkir Gold”, due to its golden-amber color, it is the most popular type of honey bought and sold in Moscow.
When is pryanik eaten?
Traditionally, pryanik has been eaten by both the rich and the poor, and found at the table in palaces and peasant homes alike.
Pryaniki were baked and used to decorate Christmas trees, and were used in many Pagan celebrations as decorations. In certain regions of Northern Russia, these traditions are still maintained.
Pryaniki are also used as gifts for birthdays, and play a large part in traditional wedding feasts.
Today, pryanik is often enjoyed as a light afternoon snack, accompanied with a cup of tea or coffee.
Variations of pryanik
There are three main variations of pryanik in Russian cuisine. These are cut, hand molded, and imprinted. The imprinted pryanik is made by pressing the dough into a design cut into a wooden board, whereas the other two are either made with metal or plastic cutters, or shaped by hand.
Tula pryanik is probably the most famous of the imprinted gingerbreads. Some of the designs can be very elaborate, often representing Russian legends, traditional ways of life, and state buildings and heraldry. This type of pryanik is made with two layers of dough and filled with varenje (fruit preserves). After being baked, Tula pryanik is then glazed with sugar syrup to make the design stand out more, and to act as a preservative. There is an entire museum dedicated to pryanik in Tula.
Another famous imprinted one is разгонный пряник, which somewhat humorously means, “goodbye pryanik”. It’s said that this is given to dinner guests who’ve outstayed their welcome!
Pryanik around the world
Pryanik has been adapted across many parts of the world. In Slovenia, for example, they have a traditional honey bread called lect. As with the original pryanik, while it may often be referred to as gingerbread, it contains no ginger.
For lect, the dough is allowed to stand for a few days before the cookies are made, often in the shape of hearts, St Niklaus, and Krampus. The hearts, which are painted red, and decorated with white icing, are often given as wedding gifts and used as Christmas decorations.
A traditional German version of pryanik is lebkuchen. These soft cookies are made with spices such as ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg, to give them a warm, festive feel. They are usually eaten during the Christmas period, when it’s also traditional to make a hexenhaus from gingerbread. Lebkuchenherzen are heart-shaped lebkuchen, which are usually for decorative purposes only, and sold as mementos of Oktoberfest, and for Christmas decorations.
Another German specialty is the honey cake called lekach that originated in the 19th century and has now become a staple Ashkenazi Jewish cake, traditionally associated with the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah).
Pierniki is the Polish version, and most famously, piernik toruński (from the town of Toruń). As with pryanik, it can be pressed into molds, filled with fruit preserves, or shaped by hand. Apparently, the composer Frédéric Chopin visited Toruń, and was so impressed with the gingerbread there, he wrote and told all his friends and family about it. Because of this, the Kopernik Confectionery Company, the largest manufacturer of Toruń gingerbread, created the heart-shaped Scherzo (named for a type of musical composition), which has a picture of Chopin on the wrapper.
In Great Britain, gingerbread has been made since at least the 15th century. It’s said that gingerbread men were invented in the kitchens of Elizabeth I, when she wanted to present her courtiers with gingerbread cookies made to resemble each of them. In the UK, gingerbread is not restricted to Christmas, it’s also popular at Easter and Halloween.
The Czech Republic has pardubický perník, while in Romania it’s turtă dulce. Bulgaria’s version is medenka (меденка). These Bulgarian confections are usually soft round palm-sized cookies covered in chocolate.
- 3½ cups flour
- ½ cup honey
- 1 egg
- ½ cup butter , melted
- 3 teaspoons baking powder
- 6 cloves , freshly powdered
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon cardamom powder
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 cup caster sugar
- 1 cup icing sugar
- 1 egg white
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine half of the flour and the spices.
- In a saucepan, heat and melt the honey over low heat, add the baking powder and mix well. Remove from the heat immediately.
- Add the flour mixture, and mix.
- Add the butter, and mix.
- Then add the egg, and mix.
- Knead at low speed until getting a soft dough that does not stick to the hands, gradually adding the rest of the flour.
- Divide the dough into 3 pieces, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.
- Preheat the convection oven to 400°F (200°C).
- On a floured work surface, roll each dough piece to ½ inch (1 cm) thick and, using a cookie cutter, cut circles of 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter by sprinkling the cookie cutter with flour or oil so that it does not stick to the dough.
- Repeat the operation with the rest of the dough
- Place the pryaniki, well-spaced, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
- Bake in the oven for 12 to 15 minutes.
- Whisk the egg white until it foams.
- Add the icing sugar, and whisk.
- Once the pryaniki have cooled, spread the frosting over each with a pastry brush.
- Allow the frosting to air dry and store the pryaniki in an airtight metal container.