Christmas in Greece

Historically, Christmas was never a major celebration in Greece. Easter is our biggest feast, and besides parading form house to house on Christmas and New Year’s Eve to sing kalanda – the Greek version of carols — collecting money or sweets, there was little else traditionally observed. So when we came out of the hardships of the Second World War and the Civil war that followed, we happily adopted the German and northern European Christmas customs of decorating the tree, stuffing and baking the turkey, and of course exchanging gifts. Going through some of our childhood pictures the other day, Costas pointed out a particularly common shot, where he was made to stand on a chair, next to this pathetic little Christmas tree made from colored chicken feathers, decorated with oversized ornaments and grotesque pieces of cotton-wool snow.

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I, like most Greeks of my generation, and even younger, have similar pictures. Now of course there is a whole industry around the holiday, from growing or importing the Christmas trees, to the more and more elaborate lights and decorations, and many people spend a fortune keeping pace with international trends.

Honey-Infused and Roasted Almond Cookies

We may lack in dazzling Christmas traditions, but we have two particularly wonderful cookies for the holiday: melomakarona, the almost guilt-free of the two, are made with olive oil, orange, spices, and are infused with honey syrup.

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The recipe is very old, and brings to mind gingerbread cookies. Kourambiedes, the other specialty sweet of our holiday season, are melt-in- the- mouth cookies, rich with roasted almonds, and sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar. In the old days, lard was used, making the dough crunchy and light. Keeping true to the island tradition, I have resisted today’s more common butter version and make my dough with a combination of lard and olive oil.

Melomakarona

Honey- Infused, Olive Oil, Orange and Spice Cookies

Plain, as my mother liked them, or stuffed with nuts, as some people on the islands do, these Christmas cookies are my favorite sweet. If you manage to resist eating them fast, they will get even better with time.

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Makes about 40 cookies

1 1/4 cups light olive oil (not extra virgin)
1/3 cup sugar
Grated zest of 1 orange
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
3–4 cups all-purpose flour
21/2 teaspoons baking powder
11/2 cups fine semolina
1/2 cup brandy
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

FILLING (optional) or COATING for the cookies
2 cups finely chopped walnuts or 1 cup, for sprinkling
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon or 2 teaspoons, for sprinkling

SYRUP
1 cup sugar
1 cup honey
11/2 cups water

In a large bowl, beat the oil and sugar with an electric mixer until blended. Beat in the orange zest and juice. In a medium bowl, combine 2 cups of the flour and the baking powder. Gradually beat the flour mixture into the oil mixture. Beat in the semolina, brandy, lemon zest, cloves and cinnamon.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead, adding 1 cup or more flour as necessary to obtain a smooth, soft, oily dough. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand for 20-30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Make the filling, if you are using it, by combining in a medium bowl, the walnuts and cinnamon.

Take pieces of dough the size of a small egg and roll with your hands into ovals, about 2 1/2 inches long. If you are stuffing them, push three fingers into the bottom of each cookie to make an opening, and stuff with 1 teaspoon of the filling; reserve the remaining filling. Press the dough to close the opening. Slightly flatten each cookie and if you like, make an indentation on the top with the tines of a fork. Place the cookies on ungreased baking sheets about 1 inch apart.
Bake for about 30 minutes, or until they just start to color.
Meanwhile, make the syrup: In a medium saucepan, simmer the sugar, honey and water for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.

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Place the hot cookies in a large dish or baking pan that holds them snuggly, and pour the syrup over them. Let stand for 15 minutes. Turn the cookies to moisten the other sides and let stand until the cookies have absorbed all the syrup. Place the remaining filling, the chopped nuts and cinnamon, on a plate and roll each cookie in it to coat on all sides. Place the cookies in an airtight container, with parchment or waxed paper between each layer. Let stand for at least 1 day before serving. Store for up to 1 month.

Kourambiedes

Roasted Almond Cookies

Traditionally prepared for Christmas, kourambiedes are delicate melt-in- your- mouth cookies. You find similar cookies in various Middle Eastern countries, often sprinkled with rose water or citrus flower just before they are rolled in confectioner’s sugar. The old island recipes called for lard, as butter was not a common ingredient of the Mediterranean countries. There are also recipes for kourambiedes made entirely with olive oil. Today the cookies are prepared exclusively with butter, but I love this old version.

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Makes 36 cookies

1/2 cup lard or butter, softened
1/2 cup light olive oil (not extra virgin)
1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus about 2 cups to sprinkle on the cookies
1 egg yolk
Zest of 1 lemon
3 tablespoons ouzo, Pernod, or any other anise-flavored liqueur
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
½ -2/3 teaspoon ground white pepper (optional)
1 cup coarsely ground toasted almonds (NOT skinned)

In a food processor or electric mixer, beat the lard or butter and sunflower oil with 1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar for about 6 minutes. Add the egg yolk, lemon zest, and ouzo and process for 2-3 minutes more. Sift the flour with the baking powder and the pepper, if using. Fit the processor with a dough hook and gradually add the flour. Process the mixture for 2-3 minutes, until a soft dough forms. Add the almonds and process until the dough is smooth again, about 1-2 minutes more.

Preheat the oven to 350º F.

Shape tablespoons of dough into round, oval, or crescent-shaped cookies, and place on a cookie sheet, leaving about 1 inch between the cookies so that they won’t stick together as they expand. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until very pale golden. Cool for 10 minutes.

Spread 1 cup confectioners’ sugar on a large serving plate. Very carefully, because they break easily, roll each cookie in the sugar, and place on a rack to cool. Proceed with all the cookies, adding more sugar to the plate as necessary. Finally, sift additional sugar on top of the cookies and let rest for 3 to 4 hours or overnight. Carefully pack the cookies in boxes, spreading a piece of waxed paper between each layer. Roasted Almond Cookies will keep for 2 months or longer.

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