A Greek Christmas
For most people who grew up in the United States, Christmas has been mainly known as a tradition of family, decoration, good cheer, loads of consumerism, and surprises. Some choose to celebrate the holiday on Christmas Eve, others on Christmas Day. Some will celebrate it as the birth of Jesus Christ, others put religion aside for Santa Claus, children and gifts.
When you think bigger and look at Christmas around the globe, you’ll find that many regions will celebrate the holiday much differently than how we do here in America. In exploring this diversity, I want to start the journey with my father’s homeland of Greece.
I used to never understand why my Greek elders were never too into Christmas, but I found it was more a cultural thing. Not so much the past history with Nazis, Civil War, and economic depression, but just in how Greeks were more religious about their holidays, and thus held Easter in a much higher regard than Christmas.
Still, there were customs around this time of year. Children would go caroling with drums and triangles. Some would carry model boats painted gold. If they sang well they would be rewarded by neighbors with money, dried figs, nuts and other sweets.
In the home, a mother would set up a wooden bowl filled with water. A wooden cross wrapped with a sprig of basil would be kept with the bowl, and used to spritz water in every room the way a priest would spray holy water in the church. The belief was that during the period between Christmas and the Epiphany, evil spirits known as the Killantzaroi would appear, and this practice would supposedly keep them away.
Much like Lent, some Greek Orthodox followers would fast for forty days, generally from mid-November up until Christmas Eve. Bear in mind there is no Thanksgiving in Greece. At the end of the fast, there would be a midnight mass at the church, which celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ and thus ending the fast.
The feast for Christmas is always a wonderful time for any Greek. Lamb with potatoes and Spanakopita would be on the menu, as well as a variety of treats. A traditional bread known as Christopsomo (hree-STOH-psoh-moh) would be served as well.
I’ll one day try baking a Christopsomo and post it here, but I really wanted to show you a cookie most Greek Americans take for granted, but you actually can’t find in Greece except during the holiday season (my mother actually found this out when she last went to Athens).
Melomakarona (meh-loh-mah-KAH-roh-nah) are moist cookies with a crumbly texture carrying a beautiful melody of walnuts with a hint of orange, soaked in a sweet honey-based syrup. Despite their holiday tradition behind them, they are wonderful almost any time of the year.
Baking them is a bit of a process, but so worth the effort. So let’s get to it then…
For the cookies:
- 3/4 cup of sugar
- Zest of one orange
- 7 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp. of baking powder
- 1 tsp. of baking soda
- Pinch of salt
- 1 cup of olive oil
- 1 cup of vegetable oil
- 3/4 cup of orange juice
- 1/4 cup of brandy
- 3/4 cup of ground walnuts
- Ground cinnamon
For the syrup:
- 1 cup of honey
- 1 cup of sugar
- 1 1/2 cups of water
- 1 tsp of cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp of ground cloves
- The peel from 1 lemon
- 1 tsp of lemon juice
Preparing the cookies:
- Heat up your oven to 350°.
- Using your fingers in a mixing bowl, thoroughly combine the orange zest with the sugar.
- In a second bowl, combine the flour with the baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Stir it with a fork.
- Pour the olive and vegetable oils into the bowl with the orange and sugar.
- Using a whisk or electric mixer, beat the oil/sugar/orange combination until well-blended.
- Add in the orange juice and brandy to the mixture and stir until blended.
- While still mixing, slowly add in the dry ingredients a little at a time. Stop mixing when the ingredients are incorporated, but not fully blended. You want a wet, dense mix that isn't sticky.
- Ready a cookie sheet or two with parchament paper.
- Using your fingers, grab a small amount of the dough and shape it into a ball or egg-shape. They should be around an inch in length.
- Place your ball on the sheet and then press a fork into it horizontally and vertically, forming a crosshatch. Your cookies should end up flattening down a little.
- Bake the cookies in the oven until lightly browned (25-35 minutes). Prepare the syrup while they bake.
Preparing the syrup:
- In a small saucepan, combine the honey, sugar, water, cinnamon, cloves, and lemon peel on medium heat to begin with.
- When the sugar has dissolved, bring the mixture up to a boil on high heat.
- When the mixture is boiling, lower the heat to low and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes.
- Remove the pan from the heat, scoop out the lemon peel and stir in the lemon juice. Set aside.
Finishing it up:
- In a small bowl or shallow plate, have your walnuts ready.
- Take the finished cookies while still warm and place them in groups into the syrup. Roll them around with a fork or spoon to make sure all sides are hit.
- Fish the cookies out of the syrup and place on a plate, top with the walnuts (press them in), and sprinkle with cinnamon to finish.
When you combine the sugar with the orange zest, really squeeze and grind up the orange in your fingers with the syrup. This releases the oils found in the zest and will flavor the sugar.
Don't overmix your dough. Your goal is a dense, wet, (but not sticky) dough. Overmixing won't give the right texture to the cookies.
Your cookies might not look as dark as you would want coming out of the oven. Don't worry, they will get darker with the additions of syrup and cinnamon.
Be careful not to burn the sugar when you make the syrup. It's why I suggest starting on medium heat and dissolving the sugar before bringing the mixture to a boil.
Do not refrigerate the cookies, as they will harden. You can just store them in an airtight container.