Orange, cinnamon, and cloves are the main fragrances that pervade the kitchens around the world in the dark, winter days and long nights. Their sweet, enticing aromas set the mood for the upcoming holidays that mark the end of the year throughout most of the world.
Melomakarona, the traditional Greek, fragrant, honey-infused Christmas cookies are my favorites! They are vegan, because people ate them during the days of Lent that precede Christmas according to the Orthodox doctrines that some people follow, even if they are not religious. Now they are being rediscovered, as baking with olive oil has become trendy, and even the NYT published a version recently. I have slightly updated my mother’s recipe –which she had from her own mother– adding some ground nuts in the dough.
I think you will find these cookies irresistible, but 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.
An extra bonus of this aromatic but healthy dough is that you can use it as pie crust, filling it with cooked apples, quince, or make an irresistible lemony tart with just Lemon Curd as its filling.
A recent favorite of ours is the old German Lebkuchen which are fragrant 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 fam following, strangely calls it German Gingerbread Spice Mix, probably because she caters to Americans, for whom Lebkuchen is not a household name. My only addition to her 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 on our island—and wanted 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.
Also traditionally prepared for Christmas and the New Year, kourambiedes are delicate melt-in-the-mouth cookies. You find similar cookies in various Middle Eastern countries, often sprinkled with rose water or citrus flower water just before they are rolled in confectioner’s sugar. The old Greek island recipes called for lard, as butter was not a common ingredient. There are also recipes for kourambiedes made with the strongly-flavored sheep’s milk butter, while there are Lenten versions made entirely with olive oil. Today most homes and bakeries prepare the cookies exclusively with butter, but I love this old, Cycladic version. The last years I have become addicted to the kourambiedes baked by Tsourtis, our best island baker in Hora, the main town. He basically uses butter, but also some sheep’s milk butter and bakes his cookies in his wood-fired oven, which gives his kourambiedes an irresistible nutty flavor!
I reduced the amount of sugar in the mix since the topping makes them far too sweet, anyway. Also I prefer to make them with olive oil instead of any ‘shortening,’ and of course I use grated fresh ginger that gives them a lovely, fragrant kick.
As for the ‘molasses’ mentioned, the only kind we have here is Grape Molasses, which has a wonderfully deep flavor. In Greece the traditional Moustokouloura (grape molasses cookies) are vegan –no egg– as they are a favorite Lenten treat. But frankly, these gingery ones are far better-tasting and easier (!)