It’s Christmas, and it is time to fill our homes with scents of cinnamon, orange and cloves! This means that in Greece it’s time for melomakarona, traditional Christmas cookies with a characteristic oval shape and golden brown colour. They are baked in the oven, and right after soaked in a honey-cinnamon syrup (meli means honey) and sprinkled with walnuts.
This new Christmas article is dedicated to traditional Greek melomakarona, their local variations and some contemporary ideas for original versions. And as soon as we get an appetite, we will prepare some with extra virgin olive oil, bake them to fill the kitchen with warm aromas and drench them in a syrup made with excuisite pine-heather honey. We enjoy them only once a year (unfortunately!)… so they deserve only the best ingredients!
In Greece, on Christmas holidays we face a dilemma: which are best, melomakarona or kourabiedes? Baking kourabiedes is another traditional Christmas tradition, along with making melomakarona and vasilopita (a cake for New Year’s Day). Kourabiedes are round buttery cookies with almonds and lots of powdered sugar.
Something important we want to point out on the matter is that melomakarona are healthier than kourabiedes. This is one of the reasons we prefer them, As Despoina Martselou, Dietician-Nutritionist (BSc, MSc), describes, melomakarona may have almost the same calories as kourabiedes, but they have a higher nutritional value with less saturated fat, as they don’t contain any butter. In melomakarona, olive oil offers healthy fats and antioxidant vitamins. Honey has also a high nutritional value, and so do walnuts too as they are one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Spices are rich in essential oils and cinnamon combined with orange also offers some iron. The conclusion is that we should eat melomakarona in moderation, but with less guilt than eating kourabiedes. To compensate, we can go for a Christmas hike too!
In a Kathimerini newspaper article we read about the history of melomakarona. It starts in Ancient Greece, something that, after so many sweet stories we have learned, doesn’t surprise us at all! There, the word makaria meant a dinner for the diseased, and also a pie for their souls (psihopita) served at the dinner. The pie did have the shape of melomakarona, but this occasion had nothing to do with the joyful celebration of the Birth of Christ…
Later, in Byzantium makaria became makaronia and continued to mean funeral dinner, during which they used to eat pasta. That’s where the Italian name maccarone for spaghetti comes from, which in turn came back to the Greek language as makaronia (Greek word for pasta).
Simoni Kafiri in her book about traditional Greek sweets makes another correlation. In Antiquity, they used to make offerings to gain the favour of demons and the gods of Hades. They were called miligmata and they used to be Ancient “cakes” (plakous) topped with honey.
The road to the contemporary form of melomakarona is still a sweet mystery. The most likely explanation is that in Byzantium, honey was added to psihopita (the pie for the diseased), opening the way to the delicious sweets we enjoy today. As our friend Varvara -great cook and connoisseur of traditional sweets- told us, in Byzantium they didn’t use to drench melomakarona in syrup as we do today, but they would pour honey over them when they were hot, or they would serve them with a pot of honey on the side to dive them in.
On the way to today, we learned that melomakarona used to be called melomakarouna until recent post-WWII years. Except for that, they used to be called finikia also, in the Minor Asian dialect. Their name, according to Simoni Kafiri, comes from the Greeks that had lived in Africa, because the sweets used to have the shape of dates, the fruits of the palm tree (finikia in Greek). We found the way that finikia or classic Smyrna (a city of Minor Asia) melomakarona are traditionally made: they are moulded with the help of a grater -or the back side of an elaborate ashtray- by pressing them gently so that they get a small hole on the bottom and the top becomes embossed to hold the syrup and walnuts. A difference between regular melomakarona and Smyrna melomakarona (finikia) is that the latter don’t contain semolina in the dough. The perfectly prepared finikia remain crunchy on the outside after soaking in syrup and are topped with cinnamon, walnuts and toasted sesame seeds.
In Ithaca island, melomakarona are called hourmades (meaning dates) or gourmades. We learned that their difference is that those are fried in oil and then soaked in syrup and sprinkled with ground walnuts, almonds, sesame seeds and cinnamon. Their shape is tubular with a void in the middle and is made by rolling the dough on a grater.
While travelling in the history of our sweet treats, some questions were born: How does today’s Greek patisserie treat melomakarona? Does it make its contemporary interventions or does it prefer to leave those traditional delights in the classic form we all love? Is there space to look at tradition with a fresh eye -and respect of course- and express ourselves creatively?
Having seen all those mouthwatering versions of our favourite melomakarona, the time has come to prepare our own. We will explain all the secrets and reasons for our choices, so that you can make you own variations and improvisations. Our recipe came up by messing with the ratios of a recipe we had, and it came out awesome! Melomakarona crunchy on the outside and perfectly moistened with syrup to their core…
Eat Dessert First’s Melomakarona
Ingredients for the melomakarona
|Cake flour (sifted)||500 gr|
|Baking soda||10 gr|
|Orange juice||300 gr|
|Olive oil||100 gr|
|Sunflower oil (or vegetable oil)||200 gr|
|Powdered sugar||120 gr|
|Ground walnuts||100 gr|
Ingredients for the syrup
|Tangerine (or orange) peel|
How to make melomakarona
First of all, put on some Christmas songs, wear your aprons and turn on the Christmas lights! Then, weigh the ingredients. Start with making the syrup. Place the water, sugar, cinnamon stick and tangerine (or orange if you prefer) peels in a pot and bring to a boil. As soon as they reach boiling point, let simmer for 4 minutes and take off the heat. Then add the honey. Don’t boil the honey with the rest, so that it doesn’t loose any of its aroma, flavor and nutritional ingredients. Let cool aside and prepare the dough for the melomakarona.
In a tall pot place the olive oil, sunflower oil and orange juice, and add the powdered sugar. We are using powdered sugar because it dissolves more easily. Stir well or even better beat for a while with a hand blender. We are using 2 parts sunflower oil and 1 part olive oil, so that melomakarona get the olive oil aromas, without getting too heavy for the stomach.
Pour the liquid mixture into a large bowl. Stir all the solids together and add them to the liquids. We use cake flour for better texture and to better soak up the syrup. We also use semolina so that melomakarona gain a firmer texture that doesn’t crumble. Semolina also helps keeping the outside crunchy and the inside moistened to its core. We add ground walnuts to the dough to enrich the flavor. We used a blender to grind them to a powder consistency so that our dough doesn’t have pieces inside. Stir all the ingredients together with a spatula or with your hands, but be careful not to knead as they will come out hard!
Mold the dough into shapes you like, without pressing too much and at a quick pace, so that they get into the oven as soon as possible, or else the olive oil in the dough will separate. Bake in a preheated oven for 25-30 minutes at 180°C, until they gain a nice colour. The recipe’s quantities will fill about two trays.
And now the most important step… the syrup! Many recipes call for hot cookies right out of the oven and cold syrup. We though follow the advice an old baker gave us: hot cookies and lukewarm syrup. This way they get a crunchy outside and a perfectly moist inside. If the syrup has gotten cold, warm it just a little. Put some melomakarona into the syrup and let them sit for one minute on one side and another one on the other side. Place them on a platter and sprinkle with crushed walnuts.
Stack your melomakarona in a wonderful pile on your nicest platter and showcase them in the most central spot of your home! Finally, we would like to warmly thank the companies that send us their products to support our recipes:
We wish you a Merry Christmas and delicious sweet creations!