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The Warsaw Voice » Special Sections » November 28, 2013
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Sękacz Podlaski – Podlasie Tree Cake
November 28, 2013   
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Sękacz, a type of sponge cake that is known as a tree cake in English, is one of the most famous regional products from Poland’s eastern Podlasie region.

Tree cakes look like a cut-down tree trunk, the result of the way they are made. Sękacz cakes are baked—or rather roasted—on a rotating spit shaped like a rod or an elongated cone. Sponge batter is ladled onto the spit in consecutive layers, thanks to which the cross-section of the finished cake has thicker layers of light-colored cake separated by darker layers of more strongly baked batter. The result resembles the rings in a tree trunk. The excess batter that pours down during baking forms icicle-like spikes that look like branch stubs emerging from a tree.

Sękacz cakes are 50 cm high, the diameter at the bottom being about 30 percent greater than at the top—just like the diameter of the hole running down the entire cake. Once made, a sękacz may be covered in icing or chocolate. Thanks to the process of baking over an open heat source, this is a product with a very long shelf life. It can be stored at room temperature for 7-10 weeks without losing any of its nutrients or flavor.

The history of making sękacz as we know it today most probably dates back to the Middle Ages. The Poles got the recipe for the cake and the production method from the Yotvingians, a Baltic tribe inhabiting the region north of Mazovia in medieval times. This type of cake was easy to make over the open fires of the kitchens of those times.

It is believed that the first tree cakes in Poland were made in the locality of Berżniki near Sejny, in the Suwałki region, to celebrate a visit by Queen Bona, who brought many previously unknown fruit and vegetable varieties as well as recipes from her native Italy to Poland. According to a different legend, sękacz cakes came to Lithuania from Germany through members of the Radziwiłł noble family and later, via minor gentry families, found their way to wealthier peasants. The cakes were made especially around Easter, as they looked decorative on the festive table.

To this day the tree cake-making tradition survives in various places around Germany (including the Harz Mountain region), France, Switzerland, Romania, Sweden, Lithuania and Hungary, and even in Japan, where the cake has become popular. In Poland, sękacz cakes are made in eastern regions, mainly Podlasie, and also in Kashubia in the north.

In Podlasie, the home of the sękacz is considered to be Huszcza in the district of Łomazy near Biała Podlaska. The first mentions of sękacz-making in this area date back to the late 1920s.

Making a tree cake is quite a feat: it requires patience, being able to stand high temperatures and a grasp of the many subtle secrets that determine the quality and unique appearance of the final product. In olden times, it took two people a whole day to make two, three and later up to four tree cakes. Sękacz cakes are still made by hand today.
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