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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Icon: Let Them Eat Pryaniki

For MT
Pryanik, the spiced and glazed tea cake, is the comfort food of old Russia. With a fresh pryanik you want to pull out a samovar, invite friends over and say goodbye to your diet.

Honey breads made with rye flour and berry juice were baked even in pre-Christian times, in the form of pagan mythological animals. When Russia started trading with India, exotic pryanosti, or spices, such as cinnamon and cloves were introduced, and thus the "pryanik" got its current name.

The sweet can be tiny or the size of a large tray, flavored with mint, cardamom, and citrus zest, and decorated with stamps or forms.

Pryanik forms were traditionally carved out of birch or pear boards that had been dried for as long as 20 years. Pryanik carvers were considered artisans and resided in allocated artisan neighborhoods, with the best carvers of Tula working in the Kremlin Armory and paid very well. A pryanik was a work of art produced by a tandem of carver and baker. Yet simple pryaniki were probably the cheapest sweets available to the masses, inspiring dozens of proverbs including "Without work you can't buy pryaniki" and the famous "whip and pryanik" educating method.

Pryaniki decorated with words, and not just images, were considered more valuable, probably because most pryanik carvers were illiterate. In the 18th century azbuka, or alphabet, pryaniki were widely sold so that children could learn to read by playing with them as with alphabet cubes. Proverbs and words of wisdom were frequently used to decorate special-occasion pryaniki, especially for wedding gifts, while in Soviet times the design changed to such words as "Komsomol" and "Olympiada," and even World War II medal designs for Victory Day gifts.

Pryaniki now found in supermarkets are factory-made, some having such exotic ingredients as chocolate or a neon-pink glaze. The real pryanik is brown with a shiny marble glaze, has a clearly legible image and a small border at the edge.