Eastern European

Lithuanian Grybai (Mushroom Cookies) From Harriet Hardy

December 14, 2020
4 Stars
Photo by James Ransom. Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop stylist: Gerri Williams.
Author Notes

Their name may sound savory, but these spicy-sweet, sour-cream cookies combine warming cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves with sweet citrus peel and honey—making them a lovely addition to a wintertime cookie spread. Mushroom cookies are instead named for their 3-dimensional fungi shape, which resemble the snow-frosted homes of Smurfs when finished.

I don’t know exactly when or how this fanciful Lithuanian cookie recipe came to be in the possession of my late mother-in-law’s mom Harriet, but through the years, they stubbornly cemented themselves in my husband’s holiday eating tradition. My own journey to embracing the annual ritual of baking them at Christmastime was a bit—ahem—harder won.

After mixing, kneading, and resting, the sturdy, fragrant dough is divided and formed into short stems and round cookie caps indented with the rod end of a wooden spoon. Once baked till just brown and firm, the stems are glued to the caps with icing. The caps get a second dip in the same glaze, after which their tops are sprinkled liberally with crunchy poppy seeds.

My mother-in-law, a confident and enthusiastic baker, always tackled mushroom cookies solo, reveling in the hours-long process (and even baking a few other cookies simultaneously, because why not?). I, on the other hand, prefer confronting them with a sous baker—preferably the level-headed sort with a knack for measuring and assembly line-setup.

In the 10 years I’ve been baking them, I freely admit that I’ve rarely strayed from the handwritten brief on its small, stained notecard, nor have I learned many tricks beyond dangling the finished cookies in the gaps of baking racks as they dry (I’ve seen other home bakers lean them diagonally inside muffin tins for support). More than anything, these warming, tender cookies represent a few hours back in the generous, joyful company of my late mother-in-law—meaning I cherish the whole damn, messy process just as it is.

While they indeed demand considerable time, counter space, and patience to prepare, you won’t find a more enchanting, delicious, or special result. My only advice is to bake as many mushroom cookies as you can tolerate at once; you’ll want to keep as many for yourself as you give away. —Maggie Hennessy

  • Prep time 3 hours 30 minutes
  • Cook time 20 minutes
  • makes 36 to 40 cookies
Ingredients
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated orange zest
  • 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons full-fat sour cream
  • 2 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/2 cup poppy seeds, plus more as needed
In This Recipe
Directions
  1. Heat the honey in a large pan over medium heat until it bubbles at the sides of the pan. Remove from the heat; stir in the granulated and light brown sugars, butter, egg, spices, and zest.
  2. Combine the flour, baking soda, and salt into a mixing bowl; stir in the honey mixture alternately with sour cream. Turn onto a lightly floured board; knead until the dough is easy to handle and not sticky (firm enough to hold the impression of your finger), about 5 minutes. Allow the dough to rest for 20 minutes.
  3. Heat oven to 350°F. Divide the dough into four equal parts. Make mushroom “stems” from one part. Shape into two rolls, each 25 inches long about ⅜ inch in diameter. Cut into 1-inch lengths, reshaping ends of each “stem” if necessary. Place 1 ½ inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake until firm and light brown on bottoms, about 7 minutes. Cool on wire racks.
  4. From the remaining dough, make the same amount of “caps” as “stems.” Form the “caps” by shaping dough into 1 ½-inch balls. Make an indentation about ½-inch deep on one side of each ball with the handle of a wooden spoon. Place caps, indented side down, ½ inch apart on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake until light brown on bottoms, about 12 minutes. Cool on wire racks.
  5. Make the icing: Mix together the confectioners’ sugar and 1 tablespoon water. Add another 2 tablespoons water a little at a time, beating well in between, until the icing is combined.
  6. Line a baking sheet with foil, and fit with a wire rack. Enlarge the indentation in the cooled caps with a small pointed knife. Dip one end of each stem into the icing and insert in the cap. Dip the cap into the icing, sprinkle the top with poppyseeds, and set the cookie on the rack to dry. Repeat until you’ve glued together all the stems and caps, and decorated the caps. Let dry for at least 15 minutes.
  7. Store the cookies in an airtight container for up to six weeks or in the freezer for about three months, though I’ve never seen them hang around this long.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Lisa Hogeland
    Lisa Hogeland
  • freshparsley
    freshparsley
  • Maggie Hennessy
    Maggie Hennessy
  • liorlior
    liorlior

14 Reviews

liorlior March 20, 2021
I believe Betsy's mother's source may have been inspired by a very similar recipe for this cookie featured in a 1972 edition of the Betty Crocker magazine, Sphere! We make a similar cookie and I think it entered my family's canon through Sphere.
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. March 20, 2021
Thank you so much for sharing this! I'll have to try to track that down! That makes me so happy to think of the same cookie entering your family canon around the same time as mine. ❤️
 
witloof December 24, 2020
I loved reading this, thank you!
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. December 26, 2020
Thank you! ❤️
 
Lisa H. December 21, 2020
Was intrigued by the story and wanted to gift these to a Latvian friend. I was disappointed in the results, however. Not sure the cookies benefit from the kneading. The cookies were very dense and tough. And as someone else mentioned, the icing could use some flavor - I tried adding some vanilla but some orange juice would have been nice.
 
Leah December 21, 2020
Fun to make and exquisite in a holiday cookie tin. I decorated some with red icing and white nonpareils as polkadots. I did double the zest and most of the spices in my second batch, also added ginger.
 
Yolanda December 19, 2020
What a unique & lovely cookie! The fragrance of the dough is exotic & intoxicating. I forgot to add the cloves, & it was still so fragrant & wonderful! Sis was not lying when she said it was a lot of work, though! I strongly suggest prepping everything beforehand. I would make the stems a bit longer than 1 inch & I didn’t find it necessary to cut the indentation. I just used the end of the spoon again before they cooled & then during assembly, I gently forced the iced stems into the hole. That actually helped them stay together better. Most of my poppyseeds slid right off of the icing so I think the muffin tin suggestion is better for drying them; that would probably help them stay upright. You could put cupcake liners in there for easier clean-up. The instructions were correct & easy to follow, but some parchment paper on the cookie sheet would have been a good idea. Next time I’ll use the juice from the zested orange instead of water to make the icing. I enjoyed the process of making these & I’m excited to show them off!
 
Joan S. December 17, 2020
I love the your Christmas mushroom story. I have never heard of cookies you knead. The recipe is very clear - I like that. I positively want to try to make them. They are so cute.
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. December 18, 2020
Please let me know if you make them, and how they turn out!
 
Julija December 15, 2020
Hello! Lovely story and recipe that takes me back to my childhood growing up in the Lithuanian community in Cleveland. I will say that the photo doesn’t quite do justice to the typical “grybai” which are usually quite heavily iced with either chocolate-covered tops to look like boletus/porcini, or food-color red with white dots to look like amanita muscaria mushrooms. The poppy seeds are only used to dip the bottom of the stem, to look like dirt!
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. December 18, 2020
Hi! Interesting! I agree about the heavier icing on top (this was shot by a test kitchen). The finishing is from the original recipe my mother-in-law's mom got, so they must have approached it a bit differently wherever she found it. Thanks for sharing this; I'm inspired to try the chocolate icing! I wonder if you can share the basic chocolate frosting you use?
 
Julija December 18, 2020
Sure! I think my aunt and grandmother (who were the queens of the grybai-making in my family) used the basic powdered-sugar frosting but added some melted chocolate (probably Nestle chips!), but when I've made them I just use a high-quality dark chocolate and melt it/temper it and then dip the caps after they've adhered to the stems (then ice the stems all the way up and dip the bottom in poppy seeds). Would upload a photo if I could!
 
freshparsley December 14, 2020
The best explanation of the rewards and the challenges of holiday baking an authentic eastern European family favorite I have read this year! Thank you for capturing the joy and the poppy seeds that bring back memories.
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. December 18, 2020
Ohhh, thank you! What a lovely compliment! I'm so glad my slightly rocky journey resonated! ❤️