In a Greek home, koulourakia are to Easter what pumpkin pie is to Thanksgiving. Can you have one without the other and still call it a holiday? I think not.
As with any kind of traditional recipe, there are regional differences and individual preferences to contend with (and some Greek lady swearing hers is the only “true” recipe). No matter what, all koulourakia (koo-loo-RAH-kee-ah) have in common a few things: they are made in a twisted shape, have lots of butter, and most have a citrus flavor from lemon or orange. The texture differs from firm and dry to soft and tender, depending on the ingredients and methods used to put them together. (By the way, koulourakia is plural, koulouri (koo-LOO-ri) is singular.)
These cookies are on the softer side due to the milk and baking powder used. This way you have a cookie that is firm enough to be dunked in a cup of hot coffee, but soft enough to not need it. There is a distinct sweet and citrusy flavor, but not so sweet as to be overwhelming. Oh, and you don’t have to wait for Easter to have it, you can make it anytime you want!
Koulourakia (Greek Easter Cookies) Recipe
For the cookies:
- 3 1/2 to 4 cups all purpose flour
- 1 Tbsp. baking powder
- 1 cup salted butter at room temperature
- 2 eggs
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup milk
- 1 tsp. grated fresh lemon zest, or 1/2 tsp lemon extract
- 1 tsp. grated fresh orange zest, or 1/2 tsp. orange extract
For the glaze:
- 1 egg
- 1 Tbsp. milk
- sesame seeds
In a medium bowl, measure out the 3 1/2 cups flour and the baking powder. I measure flour by fluffing it up with a whisk, and then scooping it into a measuring cup. Whisk together the flour and baking powder until completely combined. Set the flour mix aside.
Beat the butter with a mixer at high speed in a large bowl until fluffy and pale in color. Add the eggs and continue to beat. You may need to stop the mixer to scrape the bowl down periodically as you add more ingredients to the butter to ensure they all get combined. Add the sugar, milk, and zests or extracts. You could use all lemon or all orange if you prefer one flavor over the other. Continue to beat until all the ingredients are combined. The mixture will likely not be smooth, but will have a curdled appearance and this is fine.
Turn the mixer speed to a low setting and slowly add in the flour about a third at a time, mixing until mostly combined before adding more. You could also stir this in with a spoon. Once all the flour has been incorporated, continue to mix about a minute more then allow the dough to rest for at least 15 minutes. This will allow the flour to absorb the liquids and be less likely to be sticky.
Once your dough has rested, preheat the oven to 350 F. (By the way, you could store the dough in the refrigerator or freezer, if you are pressed for time, and finish the remaining steps later on.) Test the dough with clean, dry hands to see if it is too sticky to handle. The dough will be soft, but you will also be dusting your hands and work surface with a little flour. If the dough is very sticky, add in just enough of the remaining flour to make it workable with floured hands.
Very lightly dust your hands and a smooth work surface with a little flour. You don’t want too much or you wont be able to twist your koulourakia properly. Take a bit of dough just a little smaller than a golf or ping pong ball. Roll the dough into a ball then lay it on the work surface and roll it into a thin rope about 8 to 9 inches long. Take the rope and twist it over on itself three times, pinching the ends together (see both the pictures as well as the video). Lay the twisted dough onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Space the remaining cookies about 1 inch apart to give them room to expand.
Mix the remaining egg and 1 Tbsp. of milk together. Using a pastry brush, lightly coat each cookie with the egg mixture. Sprinkle sesame seeds over each of the cookies. Place the pan into the oven and bake for 15 to 25 minutes. You want them to be a light shade of golden brown. The longer they bake the more crispy they will be, so you can let them go to your preferred texture.
Remove the koulourakia from the oven and allow to cool on the pan for about 1 minute before carefully transferring them to a cooling rack. Allow the cookies to cool completely. They should then be stored in an air tight container, or could be kept in the freezer for later enjoyment.