the salem witch trials "witch cake," reimagined

As a service to my readers, food & feast posts will always feature the recipe first, with history, folklore, and cooking tips toward the bottom of the page. For background on this recipe and helpful hints for navigating technique, scroll down! Otherwise, dive right in with the recipe below.

 

photo by Frances F. Denny


salem witch trials "witch cake"

from The Witch's Feast

Yields 2 cakes

Contains flour

Prep time : 30 minutes, plus chilling

Cook time : 30 minutes


ingredients

2 teaspoons vervain, finely ground or powdered

1 whole hazelnut

10 tablespoons unsalted butter or vegan butter

¼ cup milk or non-dairy substitute

2 cups rye flour

⅓ cup brown sugar

¾ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

2 four-leaf clovers (optional but recommended)


This recipe includes instructions for both ritual & baking. For context on the ritual given here, scroll to the bottom of this recipe. This is a useful culinary divination ritual, for large or troublesome questions that require a firm yes/no response. However, these brown-butter scones are delightfully delicious on their own, and readers may choose to omit the magical ingredients listed (vervain, hazel, and clovers) if they wish to serve these treats for breakfast or tea.


This work is best performed when the moon is waxing or full and is without strong negative aspects. On the evening before the cakes are made, sit by candlelight before your altar or a quiet workspace. Burn an incense of black frankincense, storax, hazel leaves, mugwort and yarrow. Set a clean dish upon your altar and use the powdered vervain to draw an X across the dish. Place your hazelnut in the centre of the mark. If lunar divinities are a part of your practice, you may invoke them now, or otherwise read the lunar invocation of your choosing (find my favorites here and here). Knock with your knuckles three times on either side of the dish. Lift the hazelnut into the incense smoke and recite the following:


Remember, hazel, what you revealed

in gold, in truth, in treasure hidden beneath the earth,

Commanded by witches who sought to see –

Now, compelled by Selene,

you shall do the same for me.


Spend time in meditation about the question you wish to ask, and take your time to discern precise phrasing for your question. Before the altar, craft a sigil of your question and rework the design until you are fully satisfied. For a detailed introduction to creating sigils, consult this useful guide. Allow the incense to burn out completely and go to sleep, paying specific attention to any information revealed in dreams.


The following day, begin at the hour of the moon. Place your butter in a skillet over medium–low heat and cook until the butter is browning and releasing a nutty fragrance. Transfer the browned butter to a small dish and set in the refrigerator until solidified, about 20 minutes.


Preheat your oven to 190ºC/375ºF/Gas 5. Retrieve the dish of vervain and the hazelnut from your altar. In a small saucepan, combine the milk and vervain powder and set over a low heat until it just comes to a simmer. Remove from the heat and allow to infuse and cool to room temperature.


In a medium bowl, mix together your flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Using your hands or a pastry cutter, work the solidified butter into the flour mixture until it is crumbly and no large lumps of butter remain. Add half of your milk to the flour mixture and work until the dough begins to come together, then add the rest and mix until a smooth ball of dough forms.


Line a baking tray with baking parchment, and lightly grease a 7.5cm (3in) round cookie cutter. (If you do not have cookie cutters at home, these biscuits can be formed by hand.) Press a 1/8” layer of dough into the bottom of the cookie cutter and set one of your four leaf clovers in the centre. Place your hazelnut on top of the clover and whisper your question into the dough. Seal the biscuit with more dough, pressing into the cookie cutter until the biscuit is 1cm (½in) thick. Inscribe it with the sigil you created, then slide the cookie cutter away from the dough. Repeat this process again exactly, but instead of a second hazelnut, use a ball of cookie dough the same size. When finished, the biscuits should be identical and indistinguishable with the hazelnut fully obscured. Any remaining dough can be wrapped tightly in cling film (plastic wrap) and stored in the freezer for up to 2 months to repeat this ritual again.


Bake the shortbreads for 18–25 minutes, or until they slide away from the parchment easily and are fully cooked underneath. Let cool to room temperature. When you are ready to perform the ritual, recite your question aloud, and allow your hands to select one of the cakes. The other cake should be immediately buried, burned, discarded or destroyed, so that there is no possibility of changing your selection. Eat the biscuit you selected and truth will be revealed. If the hazelnut is present, the answer is yes; if it is not, the answer is no.

 

This recipe is perhaps one of my favorites from my book. It is one of the few editions which contains a fully-fledged ritual of its own, where the baking of a pastry containing consecrated herbs and nuts will yeild a useful yes/no answer to any question posed. This ritual calls upon three magical tools- consecration, divination, and sigilcraft- to accomplish its goal, and has been adapted from more complex rituals in my personal practice to be accessible and easy to navigate for beginners and seasoned witches alike.


As a history nerd, I love taking a look at the spells and recipes of witches past, and examining the magic they performed (or were reputed to perform) during their lives. Often, the line between what is recorded as historically accurate magical work and what is legend and lore is very blurry, and it can be hard to say for certainty what is real and what is fantasy. For example, the qualifications of witches given in the 1486 witch-hunting manual, The Malleus Maleficarum, are described in the text by church officials, not actual practicing witches themselves. How closely these qualifications- ranging in detail from descriptions of rituals to broad lists of passive qualities that identify a witch, such as dates of birth or physical cues- resemble the boots-on-the-ground practices of witches during this time is certainly up for debate. Was this text factual in its depictions of 15th century European magic, or is it a collection of propaganda that casts a wide net to enable the persecution of people deemed disruptive to the church?


The stories surrounding the Salem Witch Trials are similarly murky, with retellings of events and supposed charms also coming second hand from historians or other non-practitioners. The piece of lore that forms the basis for this recipe is among these mysteries. While the very sparse lore doesn't give us very much to go on as far as rituals involved in consecrating or crafting Salem's iconic witch cake, it does spark the imagination for possible application of magic in the kitchen, using similar tools and aims. From The Witch's Feast :


"The story of the Salem witch trials has, for better or for worse, become an integral part of witch folklore in the United States. It is a story about a true terror of the unknown, the likes of which can turn neighbours against one another in violence – though the involvement of actual witches in Salem is still debated among historians. Despite mounting evidence which points to religious hysteria, ergot poisoning and even widespread PTSD from the French and Indian Wars as possible causes for Salem’s 1692 witch panic, these events continue to fascinate us with their deep strangeness, and the possibility that something similar could bubble to the surface within our own communities. Every story of the witch trials points to more questions, leaving us still wondering what actually happened in Salem over 300 years ago.


One of the more curious stories from the Salem Witch Trials was the baking of a “witch cake”, the purpose of which was to divine whether or not it was a witch who afflicted the town, or some more natural malady. The instructions for the cake were given by a woman named Mary Sibley, who was later publicly punished for producing the recipe. In the original spell, a rough cake is made from rye flour and the urine of children believed to be bewitched, which is then baked and fed to a dog. If the dog exhibited the same signs of torment and witching, it was taken as a sign that witchcraft was truly at play.


Inspired by the technology of this recipe, our “witch cake” explores one possible application for food as a vehicle for divination, allowing us to reveal information and receive council by means of kitchen witchcraft. It employs the aid of three divinatory plants par excellence – hazelnuts, vervain and four-leaf clovers. While the latter will certainly be hard to find at the supermarket, four-leaf clovers are an unparalleled ally in divinatory works, and finding two of them for this recipe will be a useful exercise in second sight – being able to “see” or discern our answers from the noise, as a clover with four leaves is spotted within a field. These cakes can be used for divination on any topic or question you wish and will serve as a useful, novel addition to any diviner’s bag of tricks."


FURTHER READING

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