For an old city, Kraków feels young. Sure there are plenty of wizened folk walking their matching dogs, plenty haunched over their breakfasts or selling obwarzanek krakowski, but Kraków itself—as a cultural centre and urban dwelling place—feels young in the sense that it’s just getting back on its own two feet. Even the old Jewish Quarter is tickled by early gentrification, riddled with great bars that aren’t yet unbearably trendy. After heavy German occupation during WWII and then Soviet control afterwards, I imagine the city has been busy re-establishing its own identity, one that reclaims Kraków’s status as the cultural capital of Poland. Luckily for them and everybody else, much of the beautiful architecture and infrastructure were left unscathed.
If you were to guess based on current atmosphere and attitudes, you’d never know such weighty and horrific events took place here in the relatively recent past; apart from the tour buses headed for Auschwitz, there’s little to suggest that people have clung onto any bitterness or strife. On the contrary, everyone we met was sincere, kind, unassuming. There was no local contempt for tourists, and the tourists themselves weren’t aggressively overeager—though that’s compared to London, where cycling across a bridge on the way to school means unintentionally photobombing at least 3 group selfies.
Even after having to wait more than an hour for a table at a small but apparently sought-after restaurant in the Kazimierz Jewish Quarter, the whole experience was nothing but lovely. With each handful of extra minutes we waited, there was an apology vodka shot on the house (lightyears apart from that budget lighter fluid from high school days, mixed with orange juice in a red solo cup). In the end, it wasn’t the complimentary vodka or starters that made our meal exceptional—it was the staff themselves. Maybe the mango-infused shot had a slight influence. Also perhaps the simple kartofle gotowane, bacon-wrapped rabbit, or beetroot-cranberry lamb chops… we nearly attributed it all to jolly Christmas spirit, but I reckon it might just be Kraków spirit, year-round.
As for the food, it’s stodgy and reminiscent of other Central and Eastern European cuisines. Heavy on winter vegetables like cabbage and beetroot, even heavier on meat of all kinds—soupy, stewy, stodgy. The markets littered with little nuggets of oscypki smoked cheese on the grill, kielbasa sausages hanging from stalls like tinsel, and torso-sized loaves of rye bread. Pierogi dumplings both sweet and savoury, freshly wrapped, boiled or fried, and served up on larger-than-you-prepared-for plates.
Small, bright carts unfailingly occupy each street corner, stacked with twisted bagel-pretzel hybrids called obwarzanek krakowski. Wandering around the city, I spotted them in the hands of old and young, local and visiting. I’ve qualified these as bagels because they’re similarly boiled before baking (which is where their Polish name comes from), but they’re more closely akin to Russian/Ukranian бублики. The exact origins of this boiled-and-baked branch of breads are muddled and often hotly debated, but everybody seems to agree that they can be traced back to the 14th century and involve Jewish populations.
Seeing as they’ve become something of a citywide symbol and attained protective status as EU Traditional Speciality Guaranteed, I stuck with a recipe from this book lest the EU food patrol comes to shut down my blog. If I applied that logic to every dish I’ve frankenstein’d here, I’d never be concocting my own recipes; so in all honesty, it’s partly because my excellent parents are visiting in London for a week and I’m too busy eating out as often as possible. Still, make these! Alternatively, go to Kraków next time you get a chance—for the obwarzanek and for everything else.
Obwarzanek Krakowski (Kraków Bagel/Pretzel)
(recipe from Inside the Jewish Bakery; yields 12)
- 1 T/22g diastatic malt powder or syrup
- 1½ cups + 1 T/355g warm (105ºF/40ºC) water
- 5 cups/680g high-gluten flour
- 2 teaspoons/14g salt
- ¾ teaspoon/2g instant yeast
- Sesame/poppy seeds
The day before baking, dissolve the malt in the water. If you’re using active dry yeast instead of instant yeast, stir it in now and let stand for 5 to 10 minutes until it foams. If using instant yeast, just dissolve the malt in the water. The instant yeast does not need to be dissolved and will go in dry with the flour and salt (see below).
Use a wooden spoon to blend the flour, salt, and instant yeast. Then add the malt-water mixture, mixing for about 10 minutes until the dough is smooth, silky, and stretchy.
Form it into a thick log shape, covering and letting it rest for 20 minutes. Cut the log in half lengthwise and roll each portion into a strip of dough about 1 inch/2.5cm thick. Divide the strips lengthwise into four pieces about 3/4 inch/2cm wide, and roll each into a cylinder about 24 inches/60cm long and the thickness of a pencil. If you can’t get enough traction on your work surface, mist it very lightly with water or swab it with a damp paper towel. Fold the cylinder in the middle to form a double strip about 12 inches/30cm long and twist it into a tight spiral. Carefully seal the ends together to form a slender, twisted ring about 4 inches/10cm in diameter.
Arrange the bagels on a cornmeal-dusted or parchment-lined baking sheet, cover well but loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, heat oven to 460ºF/240ºC. Bring 3 to 4 quarts/3-4 liters water mixed with 2 tablespoons/40g diastatic malt to a rolling boil.
Take out only as many chilled bagels as you can boil and bake at one time and plunge them into the boiling water until they float.
Drain on a cooling rack and sprinkle with sesame seeds or poppy seeds or other toppings, if desired, and bake on cornmeal-dusted or parchment-lined baking sheets for 15 to 18 minutes until they are a rich brown. Let cool for at least 30 minutes before eating.