On a Christmas trip to Arcadia some years back, Spyros and I stayed at a bed and breakfast that served Melomakarona, honey-soaked Christmas cookies, at its breakfast buffet. We stayed three nights and each morning I ignored the scrambled eggs and fruit and went straight toward those cookies. Their sweetness coupled so well with my coffee and just two kept me full until lunch–the definition of a perfect breakfast. When we returned to Athens I had trouble drinking my coffee without them; Melomakarona withdrawal?
Olive-oil based and fragrant with cloves and orange zest, Greek Melomakarona taste like a molasses cookie took a bath in citrus-spiked honey…and stayed there. Sprinkled with toasted, chopped walnuts, the softened cookie crunches when you bite it, then dissolves in your mouth. Greeks make batches of Melomakarona in December and serve them throughout the holidays. Restaurants offer them as a free dessert and cafés might serve one next to your coffee.
I’ve enjoyed Melomakarona for over a decade here in Greece, but never made them until last week. They seemed tricky and unfamiliar and I was suspicious of an olive-oil based cookie. Wouldn’t they over-brown in the oven? Soaking them in syrup, too, sounded dangerous.
Another problem were the Greek Melomakarona recipes themselves. Many called for, say, a wine glass of cognac, a water glass of orange juice, or a coffee cup of sugar. Used to standard U.S. measurements, I was certain I’d destroy the recipe’s ratio with what I considered to be a wineglass portion. When I told Spyros about my problem he chuckled. Every Greek knows what those amounts mean, he said. And he proceeded to point out glassware in our kitchen approximately those sizes.
After that I at least had correct, or near-correct, measurements. I took a deep breath and started rubbing the fresh, grated orange peel through the sugar with my fingers. It was like playing in a sandbox but one that filled the kitchen with a fresh, sun-kissed scent. I inhaled and smiled, the holidays had arrived.
When it came time to remove the cookies from the oven I floated them, still warm, in the syrup where they sizzled and made the house smell like gingerbread. I put the finished Melomakarona in a glass baking dish. They had turned brown and looked soft, like every Melomakarona I had ever tasted.
In the afternoon, Spyros plucked a Melomakarona from the dish for an after-work snack and I joined him. It’s good, he said, chewing. Mmm, I said, agreeing. They were soft and tasty. I was proud of my first attempt at these Greek Christmas cookies which, in the end, weren’t so difficult. The next day we had house guests and I used the occasion to repeat my breakfast from all those years ago. For five mornings in a row I ate Melomakarona for breakfast; it felt like vacation and Christmas morning all in one.
I hope you give these Melomakarona a try. Greece only has a few Christmas cookies but in my opinion, these are the best. This recipe makes a large batch which is nice for gifts or to have around the house for anyone dropping by. Best of all, the honey bath has a slight preservative effect which enables the Melomakarona to keep well at room temperature for a few weeks.
This will probably be my last post before the holidays so I’d like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a happy, prosperous New Year. Thank you for visiting my little blog; I look forward to writing it again next year. Καλές γιορτές everyone!
250 grams (1 ¼ cups) sugar
2 teaspoons freshly grated orange zest
1,200 grams (9 ¼ cups) all-purpose flour
1 tsp. ground cloves
1 ½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 pinches salt
500 grams (2 ¼ cups) olive oil
200 grams (¾ cup)fresh orange juice
140 grams (2/3 cup) cognac or brandy
For the syrup:
355 grams (1 ½ cup) water
200 grams (1 cup) sugar
680 grams (2 cups) honey
1 cinnamon stick
2 2”-pieces lemon peel
2 teaspoons lemon juice
4 whole cloves
500 grams (2 cups) chopped walnuts, toasted
- In a small bowl rub the orange zest into the sugar with your fingers until evenly sifted; this helps infuse the sugar with orange flavor and makes for a tasty cookie.
- Combine the ingredients for mixture 1 in a large mixing bowl and set aside
- Stir the olive oil in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer. While mixing, pour in the sugar, orange juice, and cognac and stir for 10 minutes.
- Gradually stir mixture 1 into the wet ingredients until mixing becomes too difficult. Knead lightly by hand until well-combined. The dough will be soft and pliable, a bit like play dough.
- Preheat oven to 200 oC (392oF).
- Break off dough into walnut or ping-pong ball sized portions (depending on whether you’d like small or large cookies) and roll into oblong balls. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet (I can usually fit about 20 small Melomakarona per large cookie sheet) and flatten slightly with a fork in a crisscross pattern. Bake for 15-20 minutes, taking care not to overcook as Melomakarona over-brown easily.
- While the cookies are baking, combine the water, honey, sugar, lemon peel, cinnamon stick and cloves in a saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer uncovered for 10-15 minutes. Remove the lemon rind, cloves, and cinnamon stick. Stir in the lemon juice and keep warm.
- Remove the cookies from the oven. While still very warm, float the cookies in the warm syrup for 30 seconds on each side. Place the syrup-soaked cookies on a serving platter or glass dish and sprinkle with chopped walnuts and ground cinnamon. Do not refrigerate. Because the syrup acts as a preservative, Melomakaronia will keep at room temperature for about three weeks.