Christmas wouldn’t be well, Christmas, without the ubiquitous mince pie – in the UK at least. You’d probably be very hard pressed to find a single solitary mince pie in Greece where I grew up. Instead of mince pies we have kourabiethes and melomakarona – two traditional Greek recipes that are completely inescapable during the festive season. Most households have a recipe passed down the generations and every year large batches of these cookies get baked, exchanged, gifted and nibbled round the clock for a few weeks come December.
Melomakarona – my favourite – translates as ‘honey macaroons’ but in reality they are little cookies made with olive oil and lots of Christmas spices which are then soaked in honey syrup and topped with chopped walnuts. They keep very well for a couple of weeks, their taste actually improving over time. I think they must be one of the very first recipes I helped my mother and yiayia make – I have distinct memories of rolling the dough in my hands and pressing it against a box grater to create a little pattern on the top. I hadn’t made any in a very long time so I asked my mum to email her recipe – which arrived complete with little drawings of what shape you should roll the cookies (I didn’t follow your instructions – sorry mum).
Making the cookies was a lot easier than I remember – the only tricky bit being how to make sure the melomakarona absorb enough of the honey syrup without becoming completely saturated and soggy. If you like, you can stuff them with dates and walnuts although I much prefer the plain version. I am not sure why we used to take such pains to create a pretty pattern on top seeing as they are covered with chopped nuts so I left that bit out of the recipe. I have to tell you, one bite of these babies and I was completely transported back to the Christmases of my childhood. I guess Proust was on to something.
For the syrup
250ml | 1 cup water
225g | 1 cup sugar
300g | 1 cup runny honey
1/2 cinnamon stick
piece of orange peel
- This needs to be made while the cookies are baking as it must be ready when they come out of the oven. Put all the ingredients in a saucepan, stir together then bring to the boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring, for 5-10 minutes until slightly thickened. Discard any foam that forms on top of the syrup.
- Remove the cinnamon stick and orange peel. Lower the heat to lowest setting and keep the syrup warm until cookies are ready.
Makes at least 40 (and I halved my mother’s recipe!)
125ml | 1/2 cup light olive oil
115g | 1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
115g | 1/2 cup (caster) sugar or light brown sugar
60ml | 1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
60ml | 1/4 cup cognac, rum or brandy
zest of 1 orange
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp salt
500g | 4 cups plain flour
(you may need to use a little more or a little less)
150g | 5.3oz walnuts, finely chopped
100g | 3.5oz pistachios, finely chopped
1 tbsp cinnamon (optional)
rose petals (completely optional – they just look pretty)
- Preheat the oven to 170C (340F). Line two large baking trays with paper.
- Put the oil, butter, sugar and all the spices in the bowl of your stand mixer and beat together with the paddle attachment for about 5 minutes.
- Mix the orange juice, alcohol, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda – the mixture will fizz and froth. Add it to the mixing bowl together with the salt and orange zest and beat together on medium speed for a few minutes until the sugar is completely dissolved.
- Gradually add the flour until the dough forms a ball – you can also fold it in by hand. Once the cookies hold their shape you can stop adding flour. Only use as much as you need.
- Roll the cookies into small balls (size of a walnut) and place on the trays, slightly spaced apart.
- Bake for 25-30 minutes until evenly coloured and firm. Remove from the oven and drop them, a few at a time, into the simmering syrup for 1-2 minutes, flipping them over to soak evenly. Continue until all the cookies are used up.
- Layer the cookies on a platter, spoon any remaining syrup over them and sprinkle with the chopped nuts and cinnamon (if using). Keep at room temperature, loosely covered with foil.