For Greeks, whichever corner of the world they may be residing, the Christmas holidays mean lots of kourambiedes and melomakarona, two traditional Greek cookies/sweets. Kourambiedes (almond cookies dusted in powdered sugar) and melomakarona (syrup-soaked cookies often made with walnuts) scream Christmas loud and clear for me, just as gingerbread or fruitcake do for others.
On the island of Kalymnos, from which my family is from, melomakarona are known as finikia, which is the only term I’ve used for these cookies all my life! Now, my family has a traditional recipe for kourambiedes that I don’t like to stray from and which, quite honestly, I like to leave in the hands of my mother! But finikia were always something my maternal Grandmother made … it’s been a long, long while since her frail hands have been able to though. My aunts do, however, make them every year for the winter holidays and I love the crumbly, almost grainy, texture they boast.
Flipping through a Greek cooking magazine known as Gastronomos yesterday, I came across a recipe for melomakarona by the Greek pastry chef Stelios Parliaros. It’s one of a few recipes for these cookies I’ve seen that doesn’t call for ground walnuts within the actual dough. In addition, Parliaros’ version features just flour in the dough as opposed to the semolina/flour combination I am used to seeing in finikia. I got my mise en place and decided to give Parliaros’ recipe a try. As I like that grainy texture in finikia, I decided to add 1 cup semolina in place of some of the flour his recipe calls for. Meanwhile, I added two halved clementines to my syrup as well as some cloves and cinnamon sticks; Parliaros simply uses a halved orange and cinnamon sticks. My last personal touch included sprinkling chopped pistachios over top instead of the traditional walnut.
Now, what I really have a problem with when using Greek pastry recipes, is the conversion of many of the amounts. Baking is a much different process than cooking and the right amounts of ingredients are, as everyone knows, crucial. And as I’m used to baking with cup, teaspoon and tablespoon measurements I often get thrown off course. But I finally found this site to help me with conversions and I am pretty sure I got things right this time. The melomakarona/finikia turned out firm on the outside and extremely moist inside. They’re not overly sweet and the hints of cinnamon, clove and clementines really come through in the syrup they’ve been soaked in. The only change I might make next time is to include even more fine semolina in place of some of the flour for that ever so slightly crumblier texture I prefer.
Yields 4 dozen cookies, depending on size
For the dough:
1 3/4 cups orange juice
2 cups olive oil
6 to 7 cups flour
1 cup fine semolina
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup melted butter
Zest of a clementine, grated
For the syrup:
2 cups water
3 cups sugar
2 clementines, halved
2 cinnamon sticks
1/3 cup thyme honey
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Begin making the syrup first as you will need to add the hot cookies to the cooled syrup later. In a medium saucepan, combine the water, sugar, clementines, cinnamon sticks and cloves and bring to a boil. Cook for one minute then remove from the fire. Stir in the honey then set the syrup aside to cool completely.
In a large bowl, combine the olive oi, orange juice and melted butter. Stir in the powedered sugar, cinnamon and baking soda and then begin adding the flour and semolina to the bowl, all the while mixing lightly with your hand to combine it all. Don’t overwork the dough!
Begin forming the dough into ovals (about the size of an egg); place on cookie sheets and then press the top of the dough slightly with a grater. Bake in the center of the oven until quite golden, about 30 to 35 minutes.
Remove the hot cookies from the cookies from the oven and place directly into the cool syrup. Allow the hot cookies to soak in the syrup for at least 1 minutes, turning the cookies over often. Remove cookies to a dish to cool. Sprinkle with chopped pistachios and store in an airtight container.
In my humble opinion, melomakarona/finikia are always better the following days as opposed to the same day they are made. So make these a couple of days ahead, then serve!