by Julie Snyder
When you walk into a Greek home in December, you're apt to get a whiff of Christmas -- orange peel and cloves and cinnamon.
What's been baking? It would be melomakarona, an ancient holiday cookie from Greece. Their fragrance wafts through the house days after baking.
This oil-based cookie has a moist texture with a hint of orange and brandy. Then to sweeten the deal, it's bathed in a honey syrup and topped with chopped walnuts.
Serve with Greek coffee or for the less brave, a cup of fragrant herbal tea.
Prep time: 25 minutes | Total time: 60 minutes | Yield: 5 dozen
For the cookies:
• 1 cup olive oil
• 1 cup vegetable oil
• 3/4 cup sugar
• zest of one orange
• 3/4 cup orange juice
• 1/4 cup brandy
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• pinch of salt
• 7 1/2 cups flour
• 3/4 cup walnuts, ground coarsely
• cinnamon for sprinkling
For the syrup:
• 1 cup honey
• 1 cup sugar
• 1 1/2 cups water
• 1 cinnamon stick
• 3 to 4 whole cloves
• 1 to 2-inch piece lemon rind
• 1 teaspoon lemon juice
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a small bowl, combine the orange zest with the sugar. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
In a mixer bowl, beat the oil with the orange sugar until well mixed. Add the orange juice and brandy and mix well.
Mix in the flour one cup at a time until the mixture forms a dense, but not sticky dough.
To form the cookies, spoon out a ball about the size of a walnut. Shape it in your palms into a smooth oblong shape, almost like a small egg. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet.
Press a crosshatch pattern in the center of each cookie with a fork to flatten slightly in the center. They'll resemble a football that has lost a bit of air.
Bake until the cookies are lightly browned and spring back when pressed, about for 25 to 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the syrup. In a saucepan, combine the honey, sugar, water, cinnamon, cloves, and lemon rind and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the temperature and simmer uncovered for about 15 minutes. Remove the cinnamon, cloves, and lemon rind and stir in lemon juice.
Place the ground walnuts in a shallow bowl. As soon as you take the cookies out of the oven, slip them onto a cookie sheet or glass baking dish. Drench them in your hot syrup. Let the cookies float for 15 minutes and then flip them over. Allow them to bask in their hot syrup mixture another 15 minutes, absorbing the flavors.
Remove the cookie from the syrup and place on a platter. Top with the walnuts, pressing them gently into the tops of the cookies. Sprinkle lightly with ground cinnamon.
Some sources say to let the melomakarona set overnight before tasting, but I've found that impossible. They're excellent right away, although I will admit they improve with time -- like after a nice, long nap.
To make a gluten-free version, replace the wheat flour with equal parts corn flour, potato starch and buckwheat flour. Add teaspoon xanthan gum and 2 teaspoons baking powder. Use rice flour if you need additional for rolling.
After mixing, cover and allow the dough to rest for 20 minutes before forming and baking.
Is this holiday treat part of your tradition?
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.