There is a huge debate amongst Greek circles as to which is the best Greek Christmas cookie. You’re either Team Kourambiethes, or you’re Team Melomakarona. I just say, I’ll eat yours, whatever it is, if you don’t want it.
Both cookies were childhood favorites of mine, and continue to be eagerly anticipated treats each year. Kourambiethes are rich, buttery, almond cookies that are completely covered with powdered sugar. If they are done right (and you bet I’ll do them right!), they are so tender that they all but melt in your mouth. I’m pretty sure the people that don’t like them have had hard and dry cookies, because I don’t understand what’s not to like. Just don’t breathe in while eating them if you don’t want a lung-full of powdered sugar!
Melomakarona, on the other hand, are a spiced cookie that is literally soaked in honey syrup. They are also buttery, but are topped with a sprinkling of walnuts instead of almonds. It’s not hard to see why they are a favorite of so many people. My mom used to wrap the cookie dough around a piece of date fruit that had a sliver of walnut tucked inside it before baking them. It made for a delightful surprise when bitting into the cookies.
The dough for these cookies isn’t terribly sweet on it’s own, so giving them a honey syrup bath isn’t as overkill as it may seem. In fact, many Greek baked goodies have a syrup of some sort added to them. This treatment helps preserve them and give them a longer shelf life without refrigeration needed. In fact, melomakarona will last a very long time and still taste great. That’s assuming you don’t eat them all at once. Trust me, it will be harder to resist than you think!
Some quick notes before you begin:
To get the lightest, melt-in-your-mouth cookies, you need to make sure your butter is softened at room temperature first, but not so mushy it’s melting. Soft butter traps air when beaten and keeps your cookies and other baked goods from getting too dense. This is also why you will want to really beat your butter well until light and fluffy.
Speaking of butter, I always use regular salted butter. The salt helps to soften the edge on the sweetness and brings out the flavor of the spices. I know this goes against the grain, but trust me, it’s good.
Cognac is the most typical liquer used, however Grand Marnier or another orange flavored liquer is an excellent option that will blend well with the other ingredients. Brandy or Metaxa are also good substitutes.
When you are soaking your cookies in the honey syrup, you want to keep the heat on low to keep the syrup thin enough to be absorbed into the cookies. Be mindful of how long the cookies remain in the syrup. Too short of time and not enough syrup will have soaked in, too long and the cookies will dissolve. Have a couple of cookies as your “testers” to see how long you will need to get good results.
Before soaking those cookies, though, be sure to let them cool completely. Warm cookies in a warm syrup is a mushy disaster waiting to happen.
Another thing about the syrup, over time it will thicken because the water absorbs more readily than the honey. You will want to add just a little water to thin it back down to the original consistency when the syrup begins to thicken.
Melomakarona (Greek Honey Cookies) Recipe
For the cookies:
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 egg
- 1/4 cup orange juice
- zest of one orange
- 2 Tbsp. Cognac, Grand Marnier, brandy, or Metaxa
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp. ground cloves
- 3 to 3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
- 2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
For the syrup:
- 2 cups honey
- 1 cup water, plus more as needed
- 1/2 cup or more chopped walnuts
In a large bowl, beat the butter until light and fluffy. Add the next five ingredients (olive oil through sugar) one at a time, beating well in between each addition.
In another bowl, whisk together the remaining dry ingredients until blended evenly, using only 3 cups of flour. I measure flour by fluffing it up with a whisk then gently spooning it into the measuring cup.
Gently fold the flour mixture into the butter mixture. Stir gently until combined, but don’t overwork the dough as that will cause the cookies to become too tough. If the dough is too soft and/or sticky to roll neatly in your hands, add the remaining flour 1/4 cup at a time until the dough can be rolled. Avoid adding more than 1/2 cup or your cookies will be too dry. Cover the dough and set aside in the refrigerator for 10 to 15 minutes to firm up.
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line some flat baking trays with parchment paper. Roll a ball of dough the size of an unshelled walnut then flatten it into an oval shape. Prick the top gently with the tines of a fork, but don’t pierce all the way through. The indents help hold the syrup and walnuts later.
Bake for about 20 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from the baking tray and cool completely on baking racks.
When the cookies have cooled, prepare the syrup. Put the honey and water in a saucepot and bring to a boil. Lower the temperature to maintain a gentle simmer. Place a few cookies in the pot, leaving enough room for you to turn them over and remove them without smashing any.
Soak the cookies for about five minutes, turning them over gently about half-way through. You can either place the cookies directly onto a platter or into individual paper dessert cups after they are done. Continue to soak the remaining cookies until all are done. Add a little water if the syrup is getting too thick. If the syrup levels get too low, you can make more using the same proportions of twice as much honey as water and heating it before adding more cookies. Any leftover syrup can be drizzled over the cookies. They will soak up the extra liquid as they sit.
Sprinkle the chopped walnuts over the cookies. Usually a generous pinch over each cookie is good, but use your preference.
So now the hard part: wait. Give these cookies a day before devouring them. The time will allow the flavors to really blend nicely together and they will be so much better, as a result. These are lovely with a cup of Greek coffee or afternoon tea, but seriously, I’ll eat them anytime of the day!