If the only ways of preparing potatoes you can think of are fried, boiled or baked, then you clearly have had little experience of Polish cuisine. We made the humble potato our national treasure and it’s at the core of an infinite number of traditional and regional dishes. These include potato pancakes (placki ziemniaczane), Silesian dumplings (kluski ślaskie), potato dumplings (pyzy), potato and cheese dumplings (pierogi ruskie), plum dumplings (knedle)….I could go on and on…The potato is the single ingredient that best represents Polish cuisine. Nutritious and versatile, it has also been our constant companion during the hardships of poverty and war, when resourcefulness was essential in order to survive.
Potato babka is a very traditional dish of the region that I’m from in the north-east of Poland and it requires relatively few ingredients. The only tricky part is grating. You can either grate the potatoes by hand, as fine as you can, or use an electric grater. Grating by hand can be a lot of work, especially when you’re feeding a lot of people. I don’t have an electric grater but I used a NutriBullet which I love and it does its job incredibly well.
My mum makes an excellent potato babka but when I asked her about the ingredients and amounts, she was a little on the vague side: “You grate potatoes, add 2 eggs and some bacon, a little bit of flour but not too much and lots of marjoram”. My mum grew up cooking from scratch. No scales, measuring cups or other fancy devices. She cooked by memory and by feel, by handfuls and pinches. That’s how she learnt it from her mum. Here is my own interpretation of this dish. You want the potato babka to have a crunchy exterior and a soft, slightly sticky interior. Traditionally, the babka is made with bacon but I also add mushrooms. You can choose what you want in yours or opt out of the meat and make it vegetarian. It’s traditionally served with dollop of sour cream or kefir to drink and sauerkraut or pickles on the side, but salad or steamed vegetables would also be perfect accompaniments.
- 1.5 kg floury potatoes, such as Maris Piper
- 2 medium onions, finely chopped
- 150g-180g bacon lardons or pancetta
- 2 eggs
- 2 crushed garlic cloves
- 1 tablespoon potato flour (you can use plain flour instead)
- 1 tablespoon dried marjoram
- Optional: ¼ tsp paprika and ¼ tsp cumin
- 300g of sliced mushrooms if using
- 1 tsp or less of salt and black pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 180ºC (350ºF/gas 4) and grease a casserole dish (mine was 24cm x 16cm). Place the grated potatoes in a large bowl. If they are very watery, squeeze out some of the excess water but not too much. Fry the lardons or diced pancetta until crispy and set aside. Add a dollop of oil to the same pan and fry the onions on a small heat until tender and golden brown, for about 5-8 minutes. Add garlic and mushrooms (if using) and continue to cook for a few more minutes. Allow to cool a little and add it to the potatoes, together with all the remaining ingredients.
Cook in the oven for about 1 hour 20 minutes. You can increase the temperature towards the very end or put it on a grill to make it golden and crispy on top. It’s delicious served right away although it gets even better next day, heated in a pan. Serves 6-8.