The checkout line was long but the store’s clerks moved us along swiftly. Before I knew it, a register was open for me. I put down my purchases of gift bags and ribbons and package tags and a few items for my daughter’s upcoming trip to DC, and the clerk started ringing. She chatted to a nearby co-worker instead of me, but I didn’t feel neglected. The store aisles had been crowded and I relished being out of the fray, grateful for a few moments of my own silence.
“Have you made your baklava yet?” my clerk asked her neighbor.
“Yes! This morning. It’s soaking now. How about you?”
“Not yet. I ground the nuts but that’s as far as I’ve gotten. Say, do you ever use rose water in your syrup? I never do because I can’t find it anywhere.”
“No, I don’t use it because I don’t like it. I like orange flower water better, but I usually don’t use that either.”
The clerk waiting on me remembered my presence in that instant and smiled in my direction. “Sorry,” she apologized. “We’re both Greek and we’re in the middle of our Christmas baking.”
“Oh, it’s fine. I’m enjoying your conversation. Listening in is a nice way to pass the time. May I ask what nuts you use in your baklava?”
Every once in a while I will make a pan of baklava and give the small triangles I cut from it as Christmas gifts. But I’m rarely satisfied with the extreme sweetness of many of the recipes I have tried, and I don’t know enough about Greek baking to confidently make changes to the syrup. And I never know which nut to use. Walnuts, pistachios, almonds? A combination?
“I use only walnuts,” she answered. “What about you?” she asked, turning to her friend.
“This year I used a combination of walnuts and almonds. Any one is traditional. Some people use pistachios but I don’t like them too much.”
“I’ll remember your suggestions,” I told them.
All the talk of baklava reminded me of the only other Greek pastry I have made, a very plain butter cookie called Koulourakia. The recipe for this cookie was given to me by my former sales partner at The 95th Restaurant in Chicago. Stephanie brought them in to the office once, after a trip home to see her grandmother, and I fell in love with the cookie’s not-too-sweet eggy, buttery taste, found it the perfect partner for a midmorning cup of black coffee. I used to like to include this braided twist in my Christmas cookie baskets, a plain and simple foil for all the chocolate-dipped and powdered sugar varieties in there, but after one spate of holiday baking a while back I misplaced the recipe, either returned it to the wrong section of my overstuffed recipe box, or unthinkingly tucked it into the pages of one of the many cookbooks on my shelves. I smiled at the opportunity right in front of me.
“You wouldn’t happen to have a good recipe for Koulourakia, would you? I used to have a friend’s grandmother’s recipe, but I can’t find it. I’d love to make the cookies again for Christmas.”
Full of a generous holiday spirit, my sales clerk offered to send me a copy from one of her many Greek cookbooks. I handed over my business card and left with a promise that she would forward the Koulourakia recipe along in an email.
Impatient in spite of the promise, my desire to make the simple buttery twists piqued, I took another look in my own recipe box when I got home from the store, just in case the recipe had magically reinserted itself into the cookie file sometime between the last time I looked and the present. Of course it hadn’t. But what I did find in there was a second Greek cookie recipe, One I had forgotten about, also given to me by Stephanie, also hailing from her grandmother. A recipe for Melomakarona Phoenekia.
Huh, I said aloud as I stared at the handwritten recipe in my grip, struck with the surprise of finding something forgotten, and also with the connection it made to people and times past. I had never baked these myself, but I had tasted them, actually a few years before I got the recipe from Stephanie in Chicago. Another friend, Maureen Casserly, introduced me to the honey-soaked walnut pastries after she stumbled upon them in a (now gone) hole-in-the-wall Greek bakery in Central Square, her neighborhood at the time.
“You must try this, it’s small but sublime,” she had urged, pulling me off the sidewalk and into the bakery one day when I went to visit her. And so I did. And it was.
Whether it is called Melomakarona or Phoenekia or both of its proper names together, this hard-to-pronounce cookie is really more of a tender pastry, one made with a subtly spiced short dough and a nut filling that conjures up the best parts of baklava without the all heavy handed, sticky sweetness. And as it happens, the Phoenekia is a traditional Greek Christmas cookie. The Koulourakia is made more often at Easter.
Then making Koulourakia can keep until Easter, I decided. For Christmas, we will sample and share the Melomakarona Phoenekia. When I take my first bite I will think of Stephanie and Maureen, the saleswomen at the store, all the conversations I have had with family and friends and strangers over the years about food and culture and tradition, all the recipes I have shared and those that have been so generously shared with me. And with that bite, the world might even seem smaller and far-flung people feel closer. Maybe.
It’s worth a try.
So is the cookie. You have time before Christmas to get a batch of these made. My son took his first (ever) bite of one today, and pronounced it the best cookie he has ever eaten. You may agree.
- ½ cup honey
- ½ cup sugar
- ½ cup water
- ¼ cup lemon juice (about 2 lemons), strained
- 1 4-inch cinnamon stick
Combine all the ingredients together in a medium saucepan. Stir. Turn heat to medium and bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer gently for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Remove the pot from the heat and set aside.
Substitute orange juice if you like. Squeeze fresh oranges and strain the juice through a sieve, as you would with lemons. Orange juice will make a sweeter syrup, so the choice depends on your personal taste.
- 1 cup walnuts
- 2 ½ Tbsp. soft butter
- ½ tsp. cinnamon
- 2 Tbsp. syrup, above
Place the walnuts, butter and cinnamon together in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the chopping blade. Pulse to process until the nuts are finely chopped and the ingredients blended. Add to the workbowl 2 tablespoons of the warm syrup. Pulse to process. The nuts should be very finely chopped. The mixture will be a soft nut butter. Turn it into a shallow bowl and set aside.
- 3 cups flour
- ½ tsp. baking soda
- ½ Tsp. baking powder
- ¼ tsp. salt
- ¾ tsp. cinnamon
- ½ tsp. ground cloves (I don’t like cloves and don’t add them, but use them if you like)
- ¼ tsp. nutmeg
- ½ cup (8 Tbsp.) unsalted butter, softened
- ½ cup sugar
- ½ cup light olive oil
- ¼ cup orange juice
- 2 Tbsp. brandy
- ¼ cup walnuts, very finely ground
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Sift together into a medium bowl the flour, soda, powder, salt, cinnamon, cloves (if using) and nutmeg.
Place the butter in a stand mixer. Add the sugar and beat using the paddle attachment until the mixture is light. Add the olive oil, orange juice, and brandy and beat at medium speed until the mixture s smooth.
Adjust the mixer speed to low and stir in the flour mixture in three additions, blending only until the flour has been incorporated. Scrape down the sides after each addition. You will have a soft dough.
Turn the dough out onto a work surface and cut into 4 roughly equal pieces. Roll each piece into a rope that is approximately 1-inch (or slightly less) wide.
At this point, I like to chill both the dough ropes and the walnut butter for about 15 minutes while I clean up and get the baking sheets prepared. The original recipe doesn’t call for chilling, but the dough is easier to work with when cold and after a rest.
Line 3 baking sheets with parchment. Remove the dough and nut butter from the refrigerator.
Working with one cylinder of dough at a time, cut these into pieces that are about 1-1/4-inches long.
To shape the cookies, put a section of dough into the palm of your hand. Using your thumb, press the section into an oval, making a depression down the center of each oval.
Take about a half-teaspoon of nut butter onto the tip of a butter knife and smear this along the length of the depression in the dough.
Pinch the outer edges up and around the filling until the cookie looks something like a football, wide in the center with tapered ends. Turn the cookie over and smooth out or pinch together any cracks in the top, and gently pat the cookie into a more rounded oval shape.
Set each cookie as you finish it seam side down on the parchment lined baking sheet, placing 12 cookies per sheet. You will get about 3 dozen cookies.
At this point, it is traditional to mark the tops lengthwise with the tines of a fork. There’s a reason for this, but I usually skip this step. More explanation later.
Bake the cookies in the center of the preheated oven for 18-20 minutes, or until the cookies are light golden brown all over.
Remove the finished cookies from the oven and let them rest on their tray for about 5 minutes to set. While setting, re-heat the honey-lemon juice syrup. You can simply return the pan to the stove for a couple of minutes, or pour the syrup into a shallow bowl and place this in the microwave. Heating for 30-40 seconds is ample.
Dip the tops of the finished cookies into the warm honey syrup. As you finish, return the cookies, top side up, to a piece of parchment or platter. Sprinkle the tops with the very finely ground walnuts.
Here’s the promised explanation for the tine marks, and also the reason why I choose to forgo making these. The indentations from the fork will make more surface area. More surface area means more syrup will be grabbed when dipped. The grooved top also holds the walnut topping better.
Personally, I prefer the look of a smoother top. What I do instead to get more syrup onto the cookie is to drizzle an additional quarter-teaspoon onto the surface after I have sprinkled the tops with the nuts. This also helps the sprinkled nuts stay on top. Not traditional, but effective, and more pleasing to my eye. You may use whichever method you prefer.
Let the cookies cool completely on the parchment or platter. Once cooled, try to resist eating them. Instead, transfer any cookies still on parchment to a large platter. Cover the platter well with plastic wrap, and then let the cookies stand overnight to absorb the honey syrup. The flavors will also settle, meld together, and also mellow during this time. You’ll be glad you waited.
©2012 Jane A. Ward