Most people know that a mazurka is a Polish folk dance. But it is also the word for a country sparrow and someone from Mazur (the Mazovia region known as Mazowsze in Polish) in North Central Poland.
A Flat Pastry Popular at Easter
But another and tasty meaning of mazurka, or mazurek in Polish, is a flat Polish cake made with different bases and toppings.
The one thing they have in common is they are rarely over 1 inch in height. Traditionally served at Easter when it is known as mazurek wielkanocny (mah-ZOO-rrek vyel-ka-NAWTS-nee), this pastry now appears at tables year-round.
Mazurek Varieties Are Endless
The varieties are seemingly endless and vary from region to region and family to family. They can be made with yeast doughs, crumbly shortbread-like doughs (known as kruche ciasto Polskie) fortified with sieved hard-cooked egg, flaky, puff-pasty-like doughs or layered with torte wafers.
Some doughs are almond- or chocolate-flavored. The topping varieties are staggering -- almond paste, dried fruits, fresh fruits, nuts, meringues, poppy seed paste, pastry cream, and some are left plain.
Mazurek, whether homemade or purchased at the many bakeries in Poland, is considered an Easter splurge after 40 days of fasting for Lent. That might be why this cake is tooth-achingly sweet.
Another reason is that Holy Week, the period from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, is a busy one in a Polish household.
The interior and exterior of the house are cleaned from top to bottom. In the small town of Chochołow, on the outskirts of Zakopane in southern Poland, the homes are made of beautiful wood and, every spring, the women of the household get out their brushes and pails and scrub the exterior of their homes until the wood is white.
Easter cooking and baking are often done during Holy Week. Already overwhelmed with chores, Easter desserts naturally devolved into ones that could be prepared well in advance of Easter Sunday without getting stale. Enter the mazurek, often made with an overabundance of dried fruits to keep it moist.
When the top of an Easter mazurka is frosted, it typically is emblazoned with the words "Alleluja" or "Wesołego Alleluja," the latter of which loosely translated is "Happy Easter," spelled out in almonds or icing.
Frequently, pussy willow branches (a popular sign of spring in Poland) made of marzipan, or mini chocolate chips and almonds are depicted on the cake top.
History of Mazurek
It is speculated that mazurek, the cake, was inspired by sweet Turkish desserts that came to Poland via the spice trade route from Turkey in the early 17th century, but its origin is uncertain.
Russians are also fond of mazurki (plural for mazurek), but they can be entirely different from the Polish form. Often, they are made with hazelnut flour or meal and, so, are gluten-free.