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Saturday, December 22, 2018

Cookies! Or ... ?

Those of you who have been following my blog for a while have probably noticed that I don't do much actual medieval cooking in the SCA. True, I pitch in with the household dinner plan at Pennsic, but we don't cook period recipes. (Yeah, sometimes I would like to try to cook from medieval recipes at Pennsic, but it's easier to please everyone's palate by declaring "taco night" or "spaghetti night" or "grilled chicken night.")

But then our current Baron and Baroness of Storvik decided to entice more people to come to the December baronial business meeting by declaring a cookie contest, with actual prizes. And my competitive instincts kicked in: Whoa, just let me make some genuine medieval cookies!!

The only problem: Real medieval people didn't leave behind a lot of recipes for "cookies" in the sense of Keebler and Nabisco products. They had some sort of gingerbread, but not much else. I couldn't help thinking, "Gee, if everyone brings gingerbread, it's not going to be much of a competition, is it?"

Fortunately, even though "period" was one of the prize categories, it was not mandatory for every entry. (Probably because of that dearth of extant recipes.) So I started to think ... my persona is Lithuanian ... maybe I should look for something that is considered "traditional" Lithuanian, even though "traditional" usually means 18th- or 19th-century stuff.

So ... I thought of ... grybai! The word translates to "mushrooms," which is one of the five basic Lithuanian food groups, along with fatty pork, cabbage, potatoes, and sour cream. :-) But it also refers to mushroom-shaped cookies.

A couple of years ago, one of my friends from the Lithuanian Hall in Baltimore made grybai and posted about it on Facebook. Her cookies had dark brown caps and white stems, like these over here. I thought they looked adorable, although she averred that large quantities of vodka needed to be consumed to make them come out right. :-)

Anyhow, I latched on to the notion of making my own grybai, because even though the recipe isn't from the SCA period, the idea of making a "sottelty" or "subtlety" -- a sugary concoction that looks like something that isn't edible, like a castle or a ship, or something that is edible but not sugary, like a rooster -- is perfectly medieval.

What recipe? I quickly found three: one in my hardcover copy of Art of Lithuanian Cooking by Maria Gieysztor de Gorgey, one in the "Our Moms' Lithuanian Recipes" group on Facebook, and one on a blog site called The Culinary Cellar (a reprint of a recipe from a 1972 magazine called Sphere). I ended up using the last of the three, just because I figured I'd better pick one, any one, since they had essentially the same ingredients in different proportions. (Baking relies a bit more on chemistry than other types of cooking, so I didn't want to end up with inedible lumps by using mix-and-match proportions.)

Making the grybai wasn't terribly difficult, just a lengthy process. Here's what the dough looked like before I kneaded it for a bit:

I posted this to Instagram just as a teaser -- to keep everyone's competitive juices flowing. *grin*

I had to bake the stems and caps separately, then glue them together with icing (confectioner's sugar and water). Then I let them dry overnight. THEN I mixed up more icing -- some left white, some with added cocoa -- and dipped the cookies in the icing and sprinkled them with poppy seeds and shavings from a dark-chocolate bar to look like "dirt."

Did they actually look like mushrooms? You tell me:

As things turned out, my grybai were one of 22 entries in the cookie competition! It was a tough contest. I didn't win, but it was close, and I received lots of compliments on what was supposed to be a "test batch" but ended up being my entry.

When I posted all this to Facebook, my friend and neighbor Tina asked me to make some for her Solstice Party on Friday night (yesterday, as I write this). So I made a second batch. I was conscious that the first batch seemed a little dry, so I made sure I put the full half-cup of honey into this second one (I may have shorted the honey on the first). I also lowered the oven temperature slightly. The cookies turned out a smidgen softer, especially the caps, but they were easier to stick together that way. And the non-SCA folks at the party loved these grybai just as much! I brought home an empty container.

If Storvik makes this cookie competition an annual affair ... for next year, I am thinking of making another Lithuanian "cookie subtlety" that will be much easier to make. Just saying.


  1. Sounds like a wonderful Christmas idea! Congratulations on your outcome, and have a great holiday!