Traditional Greek Treats
Melomakarona, our fragrant, age-old Christmas cookies are my favorites!
The olive oil dough is scented with orange, allspice, cloves and cinnamon, and then the baked cookies are dipped in honey! They are vegan because people ate them during the days of Lent that preceded Christmas.
I think you will find these cookies irresistible. If you manage to save them for later, they will get even better the next days. They keep for up to 1 month so you may want to double the recipe, especially if you bake melomakarona with friends, as we usually do. I have updated my mothers recipe, adding ground nuts in the dough.
Makes about 45 cookies
1 1/2 cups light, mellow olive oil (not very fruity)
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup fine semolina
Grated zest of 2 oranges
2/3 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground allspice
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup brandy
1 cup ground walnuts, almonds or a combination
3 1/2 cups cake four or all-purpose flour, or more as needed
Honey Syrup and Topping
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup honey, preferably Greek, thyme-scented (see Note)
1 1/2 cups water
2 cups walnuts and almonds, coarsely chopped, to sprinkle the cookies
Add the oil and sugar in the bowl of a mixer and blend for 2 minutes in medium. Add the semolina, the orange zest and juice, the salt, the cloves, allspice, and the cinnamon and blend another 3 minutes. In a small bowl dilute the baking soda and the baking powder in the brandy and add them to the mixer together with the ground nuts. Blend for 2 minutes more.
In a big bowl add the flour and toss with a spatula to sift. Pour in the mixture from the blender and with a large spatula or with your hands draw flour into the wet ingredients to mix, creating a soft, oily dough.
Turn the dough out onto the work surface, adding a little more flour (1-2 teaspoons) if it is too soft and difficult to shape. Knead for 1-2 minutes, then cover with plastic wrap and let stand for 20-30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375°F (200 C).
Take slightly less than a 1/4 cup of dough, about the size of a golf ball, and shape into ovals. Press the tines of a fork on the surface to create ridges that will hold the final topping of ground nuts.
Instead of the traditional fork mark decorations, I often shape my melomakarona in the wooden Eastern Mediterranean cookie forms I bought many years ago (see the photo at the top). I press 1/3 or 1/4 cup of dough into the form then invert and bang it to get the cookie out and on the baking sheet.
Place the cookies about 1 inch apart, on baking sheets lined with parchment paper and bake for about 25 minutes, or until they just start to color. Let cool on a rack.
Make the syrup: In a medium saucepan, simmer the sugar, honey and water for 5 minutes and remove from the heat. Let cool to just warm
Drop 6-8 cold cookies at the time in the honey syrup and let them soak for about 1 minute or a bit longer, depending how soft or crunchy you like your melomakarona. Sprinkle a few nuts on a plate or container and make a layer of syrup-drenched cookies. Sprinkle generously with nuts and make more layers, sprinkling each layer with nuts.
Alternatively you can place the cookies in a large, deep dish or baking pan that holds them snugly, and pour the syrup over them. Let stand for 15 minutes. Flip the cookies to moisten the other side and let them stand until they have absorbed most of the syrup. Sprinkle with nuts and arrange on plates or airtight containers.
The cookies are best the next day. Store, covered, for up to 1 month.
NOTE: Use a strongly-flavored honey for melomakarona. Our local thyme-scented honey is ideal, but pine honey works well too. If you have a light honey simmer 3-4 thyme branches in the syrup. Remove them after the honey cools.
Besides melomakarona, recent favorites are the old German Lebkuchen, which are scented with the enticing Lebkuchen Spice Mix. It contains all kinds of spices, even ground coriander seeds, but strangely, no ginger! The blogger whose recipe I followed, calls it German Gingerbread Spice Mix, probably because she writes for Americans for whom Lebkuchen is not a household name.
TOP: Lebkuchen covered in chocolate, and plain (right) also my rustic chocolates (left). BELOW: Lebkuchen just drizzled with bitter chocolate, as Costas and I like them best.
My only addition to her lebkuchen recipe is an extra 2/3 cup finely ground almonds or almond meal because I don’t use the rice-paper wafers –difficult to find in Greece—and needed to make the dough somewhat thicker. Also, Costas and I prefer the cookies plain, or just drizzled with some bitter chocolate, so I skip the full dipping in chocolate the recipe calls for.