Ever since I called upon Baba Yaga to be my winter baking muse – I’ve had nothing but trouble. Which should have been no surprise, Baba Yaga is renowned for testing your mettle with endless impossible tasks which determine whether she will help you- or hinder you – according to her liking! And from burning, spilling and boiling over to perpetually clogged sinks and a broken dishwasher that covered the kitchen floor in a tide of water, let’s just say that things went off the rails.
I wanted to recreate the spiced honey cakes and honey breads baked by the Babas who gathered the wild herbs, tended the bee-hives, ground grain and baked at the ovens. And I had a wonderful holiday menu planned, a series of recipes, video, tonic and syrup boxes all inspired by the magical herbs and forest spices of “pagan” winter celebrations. Because long before ginger, nutmeg, allspice, cloves etc. became commonly available in the middle ages, holiday baking was spiced with aromatic botanicals, berries, seeds, barks and roots of woodlands and fields.
Like modern gingerbreads, they were decorated and shaped in the form of birds, deer, bears, flowers, stars and other symbols of the ancestral goddesses once worshipped across Europe. And I was also inspired by the beloved old witch of Slavic, Baltic and Russian folklore – Baba Yaga. Renowned for baking children in her oven, her stories are filled with edible riches. She can create feasts of food in an instant, golden apples, stocks of grain, sweets and most especially honey cookies!
Baba Yaga flies across the sky in a mortar and pestle, a common kitchen tool for grinding grain (and a wise-woman’s tool for healing, medicine and magic). Which is why I like to think of Baba Yaga and her mortar and pestle as an ancestral memory of the wise woman of the old European people – often found in the forest gathering herbs.
The word baba commonly means old woman or grand-mother but can also refer to a wise woman who conducted rituals of healing, birthing and dying and knew the blessing charms. Yaga is linked to the verb “yagatj” meaning “to be cross, to tell someone off,” (as old witches can do) and with meanings such as “ancestral,” and “forest-dweller”. With the coming of the Church around the 12th century, these Babas were accused of using their magic power for evil and eating children.
So I thought it fitting that these spiced honey cookies be dedicated to the Babas – the mothers and grandmothers who once probably prepared them! But this inspiration proved to be quite the challenge. My baking vision of wild gingerbreads came out lumpen and flavourless. Cursed! But I soldiered on. Baba Yaga may find me lacking but not for the want of trying! Over the past month, I have made and remade these recipes trying to get them “just right”.
While most historical sources agree that honey, rye (or dark flour) and berry juice were the main ingredients, I couldn’t find any recipes to work from – nevermind any specific references to herbs and spices! So I had to start from scratch – and begin experimenting! I managed to track down this ethnographic collection of Russian herbs which cites juniper berry as a frequent spice in honey cakes. (Which makes total sense considering juniper’s aromatic intensity contains exotic notes of eastern spices like nutmeg and allspice, along with the scent of fresh-cut evergreen branches. See more on juniper here).
This source also listed common herbs used in baking, cakes and confections such as angelica, yarrow, marshmallow, wormwood, shepherd’s purse, elecampane, tansy (ginger and cinnamon substitute) elderberry, creeping thyme, fennel, rose hips, rose petals and rowan berries dried and used as flour. (The rowanberry flour inspired my doomed Rowan Berry Shortbread)
I started with dried juniper berry and fennel seeds for a spicy aromatic base, added dried berries like Oregon grape for additional flavour and tang, tossed in queen anne lace seeds (so sweet, perfumey & carroty) and then added just a dusting of angelica root powder (floral, spicy). All were ground to a fine powder for use in baking.
The juniper and fennel seeds were tricky to work with. Too little of juniper and the flavour intensity in the cookie wasn’t there – but too much becomes bitter. Fennel seeds can also become overpowering if too much is used – it’s finding the right balance that is the trick. I also used grand fir needles, dried Oregon grape berries and staghorn sumac to replace the tang of lemon and orange.
Another “issue” was the rye flour. I’m not sure I love the flavour or texture. It may be I just don’t know how to bake it with it, buts it’s very coarse and dry, sucking up moisture from the dough. So despite wanting to be as “authentic” as possible I ended cutting the rye flour by half.
While ingredients for honey cakes and honey breads vary from country to country, region to region all featured honey as the key ingredient. Honey was considered a sacred food embodying the power of the sun and was closely related to goddess worship in the ancient world – as were honey cakes! And so I infused my spices and herbs in honey for a little extra culinary magic.
Honey cookies appear in folklore and fairy tales and are often associated with old witches. Take the Hexenhäusl or Hexenhäuschen (“witch’s house”) known today as the gingerbread house. This modern icon derives from 18th-century fairy tale Hansel and Gretel in which an old witch lives in a house constructed of cookies and sweets to lure in children so that she can then eat them.
These cookies were magical, good luck charms and fertility tokens, and during winter festivities were gifted to family and friends, even the animals. While the invention of gingerbread is usually credited to medieval monks, spiced honey cookies go back far earlier. Today their descendants are known as Pernik in the Czech and Slovak republics, Pierniczki in Poland, Medenki in Bulgaria, Medenjaki in Slovenia, Piparkakut in Finland, Pryaniki in Russia, Pffernneuse and Lebkuchen in Germany. Interestingly folk etymology often associates Lebkuchen with word Leben (life). Kuchen means ‘cake’. Life cake! I love that!
Anyway, Baba Yaga appears to have relented, things calmed down and the final cookies turned out quite lovely. I shaped them in the form of the sun, stars and stamped them with stars, spirals, lozenges and meanders, magical symbols of the ancient goddesses of central, eastern and northern Europe.
Some scholars suggest that Baba Yaga’s long hooked nose and chicken-legged hut connect her to the avian goddess of goddesses of death and regeneration, others associate her with the Mother Goddess Mokosh of the Siberian nomadic tribes who was the protectress of women, oversaw fertility and the rites of purification at death and birth.
But in the end, I’m sure it was Spiced Butter Rum Glaze that eventually won Baba Yaga over. They don’t taste like traditional gingerbread – but they do remind me of the fresh spicy scent of evergreen forests! Which is pretty great actually!
While the recipe for Baba Yaga Cookies is reserved for Gather Victoria E-Cookery Book patrons, I’m sharing the recipe for the wild spice sugar and wild spice honey in case you want to experiment with some Baba Yaga Spiced Baking of your own! I was going to share a special recipe with the wild spice for the website but due to Baba Yagas interference simply ran out of time. Both the sugar and honey are absolutely divine in tea and coffee – and a cocktail glass rimmed with sugar adds a little forest spice with every sip And it’s especially helpful that juniper berry and fennel seeds help stimulate and support the digestion of heavier fatter foods we tend to consume over the holidays!
First up you’ll need dried juniper berries and fennel seeds, both can be purchased from herbal stores if you don’t have any handy. You’ll also need dried berries (I used Oregon grape but you could use any tart blueberry) to give tang. If you don’t have dried berries just add 2 tablespoons of dried lemon or orange rind. I tossed in queen anne lace seeds and added a dusting of angelica root powder but don’t worry, a handful of rose petals or lavender buds work just as nicely in their place. Or add them anyway or include some dried thyme or mint. But whatever you use all ingredients must be thoroughly dried otherwise they won’t grind into powder. Just remember to taste as you go and make sure that things are evolving to your liking!
Wild Spiced Sugar
- 4 tablespoons Juniper berry, dried
- 5 tablespoons Fennel Seeds
- 3 tablespoons dried tart berries (dried completely to be ground into powder)
- 1 tablespoon Queen Anne Lace seeds (if you are pregnant or trying to conceive it’s best to skip this ingredient)
- 3 tablespoons dried Rose petals
- ½ tablespoon Lavender buds
- 1 tsp of dried Thyme or Mint
- 1 cup granulated sugar (or granulated monk sugar if you want a keto version).
Grind all ingredients to a fine powder in a coffee grinder. Carefully sieve off large bits and then grind again. Again sieve off any large undigested large pieces. You should be left with a fine soft powder with no gritty bits!
Mix ground spices with granulated sugar. Place in jar, cap and let sit overnight before using.
Wild Spice Infused Honey
Honey, of course, was the most important ingredient of honey cakes, so we’ll begin by making another batch of wild spice mixture then infusing it in honey.
Make the wild spice mixture a per the previous recipe. Instead of adding sugar blend the spices into a cup of honey. Place the honey in a mason jar and place into the top of a double boiler and gently warm off and on for 3-5 days.
Just keep it on the lowest setting and remember to replenish the water. I basically keep it on all day and turn it off at night.
The longer it warms the tastier – and more medicinal your honey. To pour off for use, simply heat the honey up and sieve off the plant material.
And for a little inspiration here are some of the treats I made with these spiced sugars and honey!
Baba Yaga Spice Honey Cake: Made with large saucer size Baba Yaga cookies (each stamped with magical symbols) then layered with sour cream frosting. (recipe available at Gather Victoria Patreon)
Sticky Apple Syrup Spice Cakes – so delish! The recipe also at Gather Victoria Patreon.