Baba Yaga’s Wild Spiced Honey Cookies

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 bread 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, cardamom etc. became commonly available in the middle ages, holiday baking was spiced with aromatic botanicals, berries, seeds, barks and roots of woodlands and fields.

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Like modern gingerbreads, these cookies were decorated and shaped in the form of birds, deer, bears, flowers, stars and other symbols of the ancestral goddesses once worshipped across old Europe. Many of these goddesses are said to be the inspiration for that beloved old witch of Slavic, Baltic and Russian folklore – Baba Yaga. Aside from being 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!​

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In medieval Russia, these spiced honey cookies were known as Pryanik, from the Old Russian word ‘pryany’ which means ‘spicy’.  Described as “Russian gingerbread, they were based on rye flour mixed with honey, herbs, dried berries or berry juice. And they were highly magical, Russian fairy-tale characters live in houses made from Pryanik, Russian folklore heroes often ate Pryani.

Similar cookies spiced honey cookies were known as Pernik in the Czech and Slovak republics, Pierniczki in Poland, Medenki in Bulgaria, Medenjaki in Slovenia, Piparkakut in Finland, Pffernneuse and Lebkuchen in Germany. And in folklore and fairy tales and they were 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.  

Baba Yaga flies across the sky in a mortar and pestle in search of her victims. This common kitchen tool for grinding food, grain, herbs etc. was also a wise woman’s tool for healing, medicine and magic. The word baba commonly means old woman or grand-mother but could also refer to a village wise woman, diviner, healer, midwife or herbalist who oversaw healing, birthing and dying and knew “the blessing charms”. 

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Along with their mortal and pestles, Babas oversaw the magic of the ovens and prepared the holy day (holiday baking). Spiced honey cookies were more than just sweet treats, they were good luck charms and fertility tokens, and during winter festivities were gifted to family and friends, even the animals.  By the 12th century, the Church was hard at work suppressing the pagan customs and values that remained entrenched in the common people. These Babas and village wise-women were accused of using their powers for evil. And it wasn’t too long after that baking, ovens and cookies took on a sinister cast in fairytales.

Which is why I like to think of Baba Yaga as an ancestral memory of the wise woman of the old European people. And its why I wanted to recreate the old spiced honey cookies in honour of the Babas – the mothers and grandmothers who likely grew, gathered and tended the ingredients (from grains, herbs, berries, honey) prepared them in a mortar pestle and baked them in their ovens. 

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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”.

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For the big purplish cookie I added wild blueberry juice!

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)

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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. 

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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. 

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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 bread 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.

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Anyway, Baba Yaga finally 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. I didn’t use anything fancy, I used the glass top of a decanter to make the stars, and a bracelet to make the spiral lozenges and big Baba Yaga nose (or goddess). 

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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!  

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 berry) to give tang. If you don’t have dried berries just add 2 tablespoons of dried lemon or orange rind. I tossed a handful of rose petals a few lavender buds and finished it off with some dried mint. Just remember 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! 

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Wild Spiced Sugar

Ingredients

  • 4 tablespoons Juniper berry, dried
  • 5 tablespoons Fennel Seeds
  • 3 tablespoons dried tart berries (dried completely to be ground into powder) or dried rind of half a lemon or orange – ground to powder)
  • 3 tablespoons dried Rose petals
  • ½ tablespoon Lavender buds
  • 2 tsp of dried Mint
  • 1 cup granulated sugar (or granulated monk sugar if you want a keto version).

Directions

Grind all ingredients to a fine powder in a mortar or pestle or 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. 

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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.

Baba Yaga’s Wild Spice Honey Cookies

Ingredients

​• ¾ cup wild spice-infused honey

• ½ cup butter

• 1½ cups rye flour

• 1½ cups all-purpose flour

• 3/4 cup sugar spice (PG.32)

• 1 teaspoon salt

• 1 small egg

• 2 egg yolks

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Melt the butter and honey together and stir just until they’re combined. Set aside.

​In a bowl, whisk together eggs and spiced sugar. Add the honey-butter mixture. Then, add the flour and salt. Using your hands, mix together until it holds its shape. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 1-2 hours and up to 24 hours.

​When ready to bake, allow the dough to warm up. Roll the dough out to about 1/4 of an inch, and use extra flour if too wet. Cut out your desired cookie shapes and stamp as you wish.

​Bake for 8-10 minutes, until the edges start browning just a little. Cool on a wire rack before glazing.

Butter Rum Spiced Glaze

Ingredients​

• 2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar

• 1 tbsp wild spice sugar

• 1 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and warm

• 1 tbsp dark rum (or lemon juice)

• 1 tsp warm water

• Pinch salt

​Directions:

​Prepare the glaze while the cookies are still in the oven, it needs to be brushed on while they are still warm. Sift the icing sugar and wild spice into a bowl. Add melted butter, rum (or lemon juice) and water and mix with a spoon until smooth. The glaze will thicken slightly if it sits around, so stir through a little more warm water if you need to – it should be the consistency of runny honey.

​Remove the cookies from the oven, leave to rest for 5 mins, then brush or dab the glaze all over with a pastry brush. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Biscuits will keep for up to five days in an airtight container.

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And for a little inspiration here are some of the other 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 in the Gather Victoria Holiday Editon E-Cookbook at Patreon)

Recently Updated1773Sticky Apple Syrup Spice Cakes – so delish! The recipe also at Gather Victoria Patreon.

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Whether its through wildcrafting, plant medicine, kitchen witchery or seasonal celebrations, I believe we can enhance personal, community and planetary well-being by connecting with mother nature!

43 thoughts on “Baba Yaga’s Wild Spiced Honey Cookies

    1. Thankyou! I hunted high and low for small objects that could be used to press into the dough…tops of glass bottle decanters, bracelets and small knickknacks!

  1. Wonderful! Thank you. Just a note from my own researches into Lebkuchen. Leb is related to Laub, or leaf (in the sense of greenery, not individual leaves, which are its expression), and at the same time to Leib, or body. Same word. The relationship to “life”, as a flowering or leafing out, is direct, as you point out. A Leib, however, is also a body of dough, from which we get “loaf” in English. Our own human bodies are closely related, but in this old symbolism need to be infused with life, to live. As you make lebkuchen, as you know, there is a moment when the ammonium carbonate takes over, and you are folding all the symbolic fruits and nuts and flower together even as they are expanding in all directions beneath your hands. I can’t shake the thought that by kneading it we are participating in the creation of the universe, with all its stars, and that the women who once did this work knew this symbolism (and its connection to love-making) very very well. The dead body comes alive with touch. It’s a wonderful continuation of the old symbolism of life, leaf and Laub, with their old forest people wisdoms, Germanic, Slavic and Celtic. Every year, it’s wonderful to enter this circle and be renewed. Your post is inspiring. Thank you.

    1. I have become obsessed with lebkuchen. I wish that I could find out more about the historical recipes, but my German is non-existent.

  2. I loved learning about Baba Yaga and wild spices. The pictures were wonderful and I’ve saved the instructions for infused honey. Thank-you!

  3. Both of my parents are from Ukraine. My mother made the honey cake, medyanik. She also would add walnuts. I love to hear the history and folklore of honey and spices.

  4. Ah, the longest night of the year, Modranicht, Night of the Mother, Yuletide. “The Venerable Bede, writing about the customs of the pagan Anglo Saxons who he was trying to convert in 6th century England, mentions their practice of celebrating a holiday he called Modranicht or Modresnacht on the eve of Christmas. This “night of the Mothers” was evidently a sacred night devoted to a group of feminine divinities, like those pictured on carvings and statues all over Celtic France and Britain which show three women together, holding children and fruit, fish, grain and other bounties of the earth. Bede changed the date of Modranicht (Modresnach, the Norse Festival of Mother’s Night) from its original time of Winter Solstice eve.” thepaganleft.blogspot

    Solstice Blessings to you,
    Penn

  5. Ah, the longest night of the year, Modranicht, Night of the Mother, Yuletide. “The Venerable Bede, writing about the customs of the pagan Anglo Saxons who he was trying to convert in 6th century England, mentions their practice of celebrating a holiday he called Modranicht or Modresnacht on the eve of Christmas. This “night of the Mothers” was evidently a sacred night devoted to a group of feminine divinities, like those pictured on carvings and statues all over Celtic France and Britain which show three women together, holding children and fruit, fish, grain and other bounties of the earth. Bede changed the date of Modranicht (Modresnach, the Norse Festival of Mother’s Night) from its original time of Winter Solstice eve.” thepaganleft.blogspot

    Solstice Blessings to you, Danielle!
    Penn

    1. Thank-you so much! I love the stories surrounding The Mothers. And you reminded me I hadn’t yet reshared my Mothers Night post -which I just did! Season’s Blessings to you!

      1. I’d love to subscribe to your WordPress site but can’t seem to find a button?

      2. On the right hand side at the top, it says Likes. I hope you see it… otherwise, I just posted a new one:) Happy New Year, Danielle! May 2020 bring 20/20 vision!

  6. Have you thought about doing the warm honey infusion Sous Vide? You can immerse your sealed mason jar of honey and spices in a precisely temperature controlled hot water bath for as long as you want; Hours, days, etc.

    Hope that helps!

    1. Thanks! Will look into it. Normally I don’t like the idea of covering anything in plastic then heating it -but inside a mason jar, it could work!

  7. How incredible!! I love to hear the baby yaga history blended with the ingredients thank you! Is there a way to get the recipe please?

    1. Hi Jo, the recipe is for gather victoria patrons only – sorry. I just ran out of time this year to make a recipe for the website and sharing the info/process for spice blend and honey was the best I could do. Sorry!

    1. sorry to not have replied earlier!!! I somehow missed this – suppose its a bit late now but an 8 ounce jar!

  8. i am an african american woman who has followed your pages faithfully for a few years. i do not understand why i have an affinity for these savories and sweets as they would seem not to appear in my blood line foods or history! but here i am drawn like moth to flame in the story of baba yaga(have long dreamed of creating a dance movement piece to this amazing story of maturity). anyway,long way to say,thank you for this and i appreciate your perspective on baba yaga throwing out a multitude of tasks to test our abilities!

    1. Sorry not to get back to you for so long. So busy over the holidays I missed a few comments on the website! I don’t think your affinity so strange considering many of these plants were spread and eaten by our ancestors across the world since the very beginning! Something rings true in our genetic memory when we encounter them. Plus many of important goddesses of Egypt and the Greco-Roman world – like Isis – are believed to come out of Africa. Baba Yaga has roots as a bird goddess and I think the earliest statue of a bird goddess comes from Africa! I hope you do that dance movement piece! Goddess Bless!

  9. I made this version for the solstice: https://chezmaximka.blogspot.com/2019/09/pryaniki-for-yanka-russian-spiced.html though I shaped them with my hands and didn’t use any icing. But, they did go exceptionally well with honey fermented cranberries! It was my first time doing these kind of cookies, as my baba was more into cakes, but it seemed important this year to give homage to rye. Next time I will try them with an infused honey like this! Thank you for the inspiration

    1. Sounds divine! Love the fermented honeyed cranberries – going to have to try this – thank you!

    1. Thank-you and good luck! There is no end to potential recipes, I barely scratched the surface. If only we could find the old recipes…if they were ever written down that is.

      1. It was a pleaure to read…That’s problem isn’t it Danielle I often just cook and cook by taste and struggle to write amounts if asked..I have to really disipline my self to do that…I have notebooks everywhere now…haha…I look forward to reading more from you…Have a fabulous week 🙂

  10. I have Charles Lindbergh’s (of aviation fame) childhood recipe for Swedish Party cakes that is an excellent canvas for additional flavors – I’ve done lemon, almond, and 5 Spice. I want to try Baba Yaga’s spice in them.

  11. These cookies sound and look amazing! Gonna see if I can find the herbs and try making a batch for myself, and I also have most of a bottle of mead I can use for my test batch. dark wheat bread > oats/barley/rye” hierarchy was a lot more fluid than people realize, since there’s a whole range of different flour mixes when you start poking around at old recipes.

      1. Oh man, I accidentally cut out two sentences from my original comment, lol. I was supposed to tell you how to use rye flour instead of just saying “mixing different flours was pretty common back in the day!” Stupid phone and its lack of screen space, lol. Here’s how the rest of my comment should have gone:


        As a lazy baker who absolutely loves rye bread, it soaks up a LOT of water, so you mostly need to add more water/liquid until it gets to the right consistency. But mixing flour isn’t bad either, since rye needs a another gluten flour to help rise anyway–the “dark wheat bread > oats/barley/rye” hierarchy was a lot more fluid than people realize, since there’s a whole range of different flour mixes when you start poking around at old recipes.

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