A more than 200-year old recipe I got from Frosso Patiniotis, my very lively 96-year old aunt. She bakes every year these quite unusual, fragrant kourambiedes –shortbread-almond cookies– a few weeks before Christmas. I may have eaten them before, but I don’t seem to have noticed how very different they were from the ones I get from Tsourtis’ bakery, on Kea’s main town.
Frosso gave me the recipe she had gotten from Mrs Dandoura, mother of her class-mate and best friend Chrysouli who recently passed. Mrs Dandoura had learned to make kourambiedes from her mother and grandmother. They came from a wealthy, shipping Galaxidi family, a town 15 klm southwest of Delphi that had flourished in the 18th and through the 19th century as a result of maritime trade and commercial exchanges with the West due to its exquisite natural port.
Calculating the generations that baked these festive cookies, we concluded that the recipe must be at least 200 years old. Thus kourambiedes were not, as the Greek version of Wikipedia cites “brought by prosfyges (refugees),” the Anatolian Greek population who fled after the defeat in the Greco-Turkish War (1919–1922) from Smyrna (Izmir) and other parts of Turkey. Prosfyges did, indeed, introduce quite a few special foods to Palaioelladites —the local Greeks– but certainly kourambiedes were already part of the local festive table in many parts of the country.
Probably the word kourabies (plural kourabiedes) derives from Qurabiya a Persian and/or Arabic word with many variations, used for similar short-bread cookies throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and north Africa. Often sprinkled or with the addition of rose or citrus-flower water, I have not seen any version of these cookies that contained so many spices, and I just imagine that the cosmopolitan Galaxidi merchants were maybe inspired by the festive European/Grerman cookies. But this is my assumption, as I am also baking Pfeffernüsse and Lebkuchen these days…
Paula Wolfert in her wonderful 1988 book ‘Paula Wolfert’s World of Food‘ has a version of kourabiedes she calls ‘Greek Butter-Almond Cookies’ and over the years she kept telling me how amazing they were. As she wrote in the headnote she served them in her wedding, as many Greek families do.
Makes about 30 large or 40 small cookies.
1 1/3 cup butter, or a combination sheep’s milk and regular butter, oftened
1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar, plus about 2 cups to coat the baked cookies
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons mastic-flavored liqueur, ouzo, Pernod, or any anise-flavored liqueur
1 cup un-skinned almonds, toasted in the oven for about 20 minutes and coarsely chopped
2 1/2 -3 cups unbleached cake or all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper (optional)
1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
About 1/4 of a nutmeg, freshly ground
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
About 1/4 cup citrus-blossom water to sprinkle the cookies
In a food processor or electric mixer, beat the butter for about 6 minutes until very light and fluffy. Gradually add the sugar and the the egg yolk, and continue beating, then add the liqueur or ouzo and process for 2-3 minutes more.
Sift the flour with the baking powder, and the spices.
Fit the processor with a dough hook and gradually add the flour. Process the mixture for just a couple of minutes, until a soft dough forms. Add the almonds and process until the dough is smooth again, about 1 minutes more.
Preheat the oven to 350º F (180º C).
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.
Alternatively flatten the dough on the work surface making about 1/3 inch thick squares, and with small cookie cutters cut rounds, squares or crescents. Collect and flatten the leftover dough, then cut into shapes again.
Bake for about 25 minutes, until pale golden. Cool for 5 minutes then sprinkle with the flower water.
Spread 2 cups 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.