Ever since I called upon that beloved old witch of Slavic, Baltic and Russian folklore 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.
Inspired by the magical herbs and forest spices of “pagan” winter celebrations, I wanted to recreate the honey cookies baked by the Babas of Eastern Europe and Russia. It was the Babas who gathered the wild herbs, tended the bee-hives, ground grain and baked at the ovens. And 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.
Like modern gingerbreads, these cookies were decorated and shaped in the form of birds, deer, bears, flowers, stars and suns – symbols of the ancestral goddesses of Old Europe since the Neolithic. Many of these goddesses are said to be the inspiration for Baba Yaga. Some link her big nose and chicken-legged hut to avian bird goddesses of death and regeneration, others connect her to Slavic goddesses of death and winter who ruled the ever-renewing cycles of nature. Others claim Baba Yaga has shamanic roots in the nomadic tribes of the Siberian tundra. Their goddess Mokosh – Moist Mother Earth, was a protectress of women and oversaw the rites of purification at death and birth.
Baba Yaga lives deep in the forest, the realm of the underworld. Her hut is ringed with glowing skulls marking the border between the living and the dead. Like many old witches of folklore, her kitchens are filled with edible riches. Baba Yaga can create feasts of food in an instant, golden apples, stocks of grain, sweets and most especially honey cookies! In many stories, she offers the hero or heroine something to eat and/or to drink… but the risk of accepting her hospitality was that you just might end up in her oven.
In medieval Russia, spiced honey cookies were known as honey bread, an early form Pryanik or “Russian Gingerbread’. The Old Russian word ‘pryany’ means ‘spicy’ and these honey breads were made with 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 Pryanik.
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. These were more than just sweet treats, they were good luck charms and fertility tokens and during winter festivities and feasts were gifted to family and friends, even the animals. By the 12th century, the Church began to outlaw these pagan customs and cookies took on a sinister cast in fairytales. Take the Hexenhäusl or Hexenhäuschen (“witch’s house”) known today as the gingerbread house. It 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 powerful tool for healing, medicine and magic. Which is why I suspect the frightening tales of Baba Yaga were meant to demonize the old village wise woman. The word Baba commonly means old woman or grand-mother but could also refer to a woman wise in herbal healing, a midwife or a diviner or seer. Babas oversaw the community rituals of healing, birthing and dying and knew “the blessing charms”. And it wasn’t too long after they were accused by the Church of being witches and using their powers for evil, that tales of the fearsome Baba Yaga who flies in her mortar and pestle in search of children to bake in her oven began to appear.
It’s 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. Filled with food magic, these cookies were part of old winter rites of death and rebirth. Offered and consumed on the longest darkest nights of the year they symbolized the powers of the returning sun – bringing life back to the land and abundance to the community.
But alas, this inspiration proved to be quite the challenge. 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! 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!
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). It 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 ground rowan berries dried and used as a flour.
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, 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 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.
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).
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!
Both dried juniper berries and fennel seeds, 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. You don’t need to follow my recipe exactly, feel free to use whatever aromatic herbs inspire you – but 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) or dried rind of half a lemon or orange – ground to a powder)
- 2 tablespoons dried Sumac berries (or just add the other half of the lemon/orange rind)
- 3 tablespoons dried Rose petals
- ½ tablespoon Lavender buds
- 2 tsp of dried Mint
- pinch of dried Thyme
- 1 cup granulated sugar (or granulated monk sugar if you want a keto version).
Grind all herbs and berries 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 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
Make another batch of the wild spice mixture 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 3-4 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
• ¾ cup spice-infused honey
• ½ cup butter
• 1½ cups rye flour
• 1½ cups all-purpose flour
• 3/4 cup spiced sugar
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 egg
• 2 egg yolks
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
• 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
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.
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)
Sticky Apple Syrup Spice Cakes – so delish! The recipe also at Gather Victoria Patreon.